HC Deb 09 May 1972 vol 836 cc1132-8

Mr. Orme (by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the danger to British ship ping near Vietnam.

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Sir Alec Douglas-Home)

All British shipping is being warned of the danger of entering North Vietnamese ports at the present time. According to the information available to me, there may be two or three British ships in the vicinity.

Mr. Orme

Were the British Government consulted by President Nixon, and did we in turn make representations to the United States Government following President Nixon's statement? Is the Foreign Secretary aware that this dangerous escalation in South-East Asia could lead to the possibility of a third world war? Would he take note of widespread opinion throughout the United States, including the view of people like Senator McGovern, which has condemned this action? Will not the right hon. Gentleman condemn such irresponsible action and call for the withdrawal of American forces from South-East Asia?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

The hon. Gentleman asked me a Question about shipping and I have answered on the question of shipping. He is now seeking to widen the discussion into the matters which we discussed yesterday. The answer to his wider question is: no, we were not consulted; we were informed of the American action. This is a situation of danger, and I think Her Majesty's Government's action in this matter would be most effective if we tried to bring about conciliation under the procedure of the Geneva Conference. As I said to the House yesterday, the Russian Government have said that this is inappropriate, but I am asking to see the Soviet Ambassador tomorrow and I hope they will change their mind.

Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles

Is it not a fact that practically no British merchant ships have visited Haiphong following the voluntary ban imposed by the British Chamber of Shipping? Is it not ironic to see Labour Members so alarmed about the security of British shipping when the Labour Government by their east of Suez policy did their utmost to play ducks and drakes with the ability to protect our shipping throughout the world?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I shall confine my reply to the question about which I was asked; namely, shipping. The fact is that there are very few British ships in this area.

Mr. Frank Allaun

Is it not quite correct for my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, West (Mr. Orme) to want to widen this question since this could finish up on our doorstep? Does the Foreign Secretary agree that, although neither the United States nor the Soviet Union wants a world war, it must be evident that such brinkmanship could lead—possibly by accident—to precisely that taking place, particularly if this week a Soviet ship is bombed or mined in Haiphong harbour? Despite the sympathies of the present Government with the Americans, should we not now speak out for the sake of the British people to avoid the possibility of becoming involved in a third world war?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

The way to avoid a third world war is to set in motion the processes of conciliation. Since the Russians and Chinese have blocked any action by the United Nations, it seems to me that the machinery of the Geneva Conference is the kind of machinery which should be invoked and which would meet the situation described by the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Kilfedder

Is the Foreign Secretary aware that there are many people in this House and in the country who have nothing but the greatest sympathy with President Nixon in arriving at this grave decision and, indeed, with all the people in the United States who are trying to seek a reasonable way out of this terrible problem?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

We went over some of this ground yesterday. The present North Vietnamese offensive involves crossing recognised international frontiers of Laos and Cambodia and also the de-militarised zone which was defined by the Geneva Conference of 1954. Yes, I have a great deal of sympathy for the predicament in which the United States finds itself.

Mr. Callaghan

I agree with the Foreign Secretary that our aim should be to attempt to reach some solution to the fearful predicament as it has been called, in which the United States finds itself and I acknowledge that the Foreign Secretary intends to approach the Soviet Union again about a Geneva Conference. If that approach fails, will he consider the possibility of a further international control commission, perhaps taking up the path of conciliation which was proposed by India, Canada and Poland, and especially bearing in mind the fact that one of the proposals made by the United States in asking for the release of its prisoners is that there should be an internationally supervised cease-fire. Since the right hon. Gentleman obviously wants to pursue every avenue in a situation in which Britain's influence is limited, will he consider this prospect which might offer some hope for peace? Furthermore, will he in private representations—whatever he may say publicly to the United States—indicate that, although the people of this country have every symptahy with the situation in which the Americans find themselves, they feel that the Americans are following the wrong course?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

No, Sir; I would not convey either publicly or privately the last part of the right hon. Gentleman's exhortation. I will consider the question of the control commission. This was first set up in 1954, and again in 1962 when I negotiated the Laos agreement on behalf of the Government. The control commission has not been effective because it has been blocked both in Laos and in Vietnam. Nevertheless, we shall pursue this proposal to see whether a more effective control commission could be set up, but the machinery of the Geneva Conference would have to be used and Russian consent is necessary.

Sir Gilbert Longden

Since I could not be present in the House yesterday when this matter was raised, might I ask my right hon. Friend to remind hon. Members opposite just who is invading whom?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I think I made clear yesterday that the North Vietnamese invasion is quite different from what has happened before in this war. On the previous occasion this action was to support guerillas, but now there is a massive invasion over the international frontier, supported by 500 to 600 Russian tanks.

Mr. Fernyhough

Does the right hon. Gentleman recall that in 1956, when the then British Government embarked on an indefensible war, the Americans in a firm but friendly way advised them that what they were attempting should cease immediately? Could not we now, in the same friendly but firm way, advise the Americans that a present they are embarking on a war which is as stupid and as indefensible as that upon which the Tory Government embarked in 1956?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

Just because the Americans gave bad advice in 1956 I do not see why we should give it now.

Mr. Sproat

Would not my right hon. Friend agree that the main point is that American arms are being used to defend and protect internationally agreed frontiers, whereas the arms supplied by the Soviet Union are being used in an attempt to destroy South Vietnam in flagrant disregard of the Geneva Agreements?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

Yes, Sir; that is so. I would rather concentrate, as I am sure the House would, on the processes of conciliation which are open to us.

Mr. Prescott

I agree with the condemnation of American action in Vietnam, and wish to address two questions to the Foreign Secretary about British shipping. First, since British seamen are once again in the front line of confrontation in a situation similar to the Cuba affair, will the right hon. Gentleman give assistance to British seafarers in those instances where possibly British ships may call for assistance to be guided through the mined areas? Secondly, if British seafarers refuse to go on such ventures into these waters, will he guarantee that they will not be prosecuted by the British shipowners for disobeying orders?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I think we should wait until the situation arises. We shall certainly do everything we can to advise British shipping. I repeat that British shipping would do well to keep away from Vietnam ports at this time.

Mr. Cormack

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the sympathetic understanding that he is showing towards the Americans is widely appreciated by most people in this country? Is not it fitting in seeking to reconvene the Geneva Conference, to remind the Russians that President Nixon is only too ready to withdraw completely if only the aggression can end and peace can be brought to Vietnam?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

President Nixon has said in the past that he will enter negotiations without conditions. He repeated that in his speech yesterday, filling in more detail.

Mr. Harold Wilson

Reverting to the point raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan), does the right hon. Gentleman not agree, as we learned, that the Russians are not exactly enthusiastic about recalling the whole Geneva Conference, including the Chinese? In the circumstances, has not the right hon. Gentleman been pressing the idea which has been put forward from these benches and was originally proposed by the Polish Minister, Mr. Rapacki, for a conference between the parties in the fighting, plus the control commission?

Secondly, in view of the fact that from these benches the right hon. Gentleman together with the then leader of the Opposition invariably asked whether we supported the United States in particular actions and always insisted on an answer, will the right hon. Gentleman now say whether he supports the statement by President Nixon or whether, as we did in the case of the bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong, the right hon. Gentleman dissociates his Government from it?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I distinctly remember the attitude taken by the right hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. Michael Stewart) when he was on these benches as Foreign Secretary in the Government led by the right hon. Member for Huyton (Mr. Harold Wilson). The right hon. Gentleman took a very careful and very responsible attitude on this matter. From my knowledge, I never pressed the right hon. Gentleman on this matter in order to embarrass the Americans or the right hon. Gentleman in any way. I will not be drawn into a discussion of whether I can give answers condemning the United States Government. If there is condemnation, it is of those who started this offensive and made it almost impossible to conduct peaceful negotiations through the United Nations.

Mr. Wilson

But does not the right hon. Gentleman remember his comments on our dissociation from the bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong, when we had given long advance notice, privately and publicly, to President Johnson of what would be our position if there were bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that in the past month, in addition to the statement issued this morning by our party which is very clear, I myself have publicly deplored both the invasion from the north and the resumption of American bombing which was stopped by President Nixon. [HON. MEMBERS: "Facing both ways."] It is possible to condemn invasion from both sides, which has been the attitude of successive Governments in other situations. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we have made this condemnation and that it was as a result of pressure by many Governments, including our own, that the bombing of the north was stopped by President Johnson in March. 1968?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I very much doubt the last proposition that the right hon. Gentleman has advanced. I must differ from him when he describes this as invasion from both sides. It is not. The South Vietnamese asked for American assistance. This is an invasion from North Vietnam.

Mr. English

Does not the right hon. Gentleman think that he is confusing the issue by referring constantly to "an international frontier". Does he mean the line of military demarcation between the British and Chinese in what was always a single State before it became French protectorate and what even now wishes to be a single State? There is no question, surely, of a bit of Ostpolitik in Vietnam.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

By "international frontiers" I mean those of Laos and Cambodia. By "the demarcation line ", I mean the one laid down by the international conference. All these have been violated.