HC Deb 19 December 1975 vol 902 cc2018-32

3.19 p.m.

Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch and Lymington)

I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for selecting my topic for debate. I also thank the Minister for being present, whilst apologising to him for dragging him to the House at the very tail end of this Session.

I strongly support what my right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) said about the Hydrographic Service. Representing a maritime constituency, I am aware that my constituents know only too well the immense value of the service to many of them.

It is fortunate that what I am about to say will not enable the Minister to reply that I am asking for an increase in public expenditure. I remind the right hon. Gentleman of an answer I received from the Secretary of State for Defence on 14th July, when I asked: if he will list those countries to which Her Majesty's Government would not countenance the sale of military aircraft. The answer was: All proposals for the export of military aircraft are considered individually in the light of the prevailing political, economic, strategic and security circumstances."—[Official Report, 14th July 1975; Vol. 895, c. 313.] That is as bland an answer as one could receive, but I propose to take it as the text for the debate.

I make no apology for discussing the subject publicly. It might be considered to be more suitable for discussion in private rooms behind locked doors, but there are many matters of public interest involved, and as the question has been under discussion for so long, I do not believe that anyone can complain about its being discussed openly.

In addition to the factors in that answer, there are other national considerations which must be taken into account—jobs, exports and the need to back viable industries. All those matters are directly related to the discussion about whether the Harrier aircraft might be sold to the Government of the People's Republic of China.

As I understand the Government's present position, there are political and strategic reasons for caution. In addition, the Secretary of State said in a letter to me: The Chinese have not come forward with any definite proposals to purchase the Harrier. I shall deal with these two strands of the argument individually.

I believe that the criteria on which the political and strategic considerations are evaluated, from the point of view of this House, relate to the Export of Goods (Control) Order 1970, which includes all aircraft. It was laid before the House but not debated. A great deal has happened since 1970.

It would be churlish not to recognise that one of the main reasons why our relations with the Government of the People's Republic of China have changed since 1970 is the relationship established with the Chinese Government by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath). The strategic criteria on which decisions about military aircraft are decided are affected by our membership of COCOM, the permanent committee of which meets in Paris. Its activities are little publicised. It may even be meeting at this moment, for all I know. COCOM decides which goods and which countries should be subject to its embargo.

I wish to read out the list of countries on the COCOM embargo list. There is nothing secret about the information, which is readily available to all concerned. The countries are Albania, Bulgaria, China, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, North Korea, North Vietnam, Poland, Romania, Tibet and the Soviet Union. The list contain seven Warsaw Pact countries, one other European country—Albania—and four Asian countries.

What concerns me is that those 12 countries are apparently all to be considered together as more or less of a threat not only to this country, but to NATO. I wish to examine the matter in detail, because I think that it is the cause of the Government's present hesitancy over entering into the negotiations into which I wish them to enter.

The Warsaw Pact countries are considered to be a strategic threat to this country and the Government have rightly ensured that the defence budget is spent almost entirely within our NATO commitment. Few would argue that the reality of our position in 1975 calls for a decision along those lines.

The seven Warsaw Pact countries must be considered in a strategic position separate from any other country in the world. Albania, the one European country in the list not in the Warsaw Pact, is hardly a strategic threat to Britain. The four Asian countries in the list are not a strategic threat to this country, yet in a letter to me dated 28th July the Secretary of State wrote: Within its terms"— that is, the Export Goods (Control) Order 1970— China is treated along with other Communist countries as one of the destinations most likely to be affected by security considerations. That is the point that I wish to challenge strenuously. It indicates a total lack of reality, given the position of Britain in the world today.

The Harrier is a close air-support aircraft with an operational range of 100 to 200 miles, although it can fly in a straight line for distances up to 1,000 miles. As regards the Warsaw Pact countries and their relationship with NATO, there is an obvious "border" situation in which the Harrier could be extremely valuable to a country considered to be the enemy of any of the NATO countries.

However, the distance between London and Peking is 5,073 statute miles by the great circle route. It makes no sense to consider that the Harrier would be strategically valuable to a country over 5,000 miles from Britain. That must apply even if—and I stress "if"—that country were considered to be a potential enemy.

We must take into account the political reality of the position of China in the world of 1975. I had the pleasure of visiting China just over a year ago as part of a parliamentary delegation. I stood on the Nanking Bridge and had explained to me by our Chinese hosts the reasons for the Chinese feeling as they do towards the Soviet Union.

Although many people in the West think that the argument between China and the Soviet Union is only ideological, it goes a great deal deeper than that. The Chinese feel a bitter sense of betrayal suffered at the hands of their Russian neighbours. The Nanking Bridge symbolises for them the way in which they were betrayed by the Soviet Union when, after the famous Communist Party Congress in 1960, the Russian Government withdrew not only their support, their engineers, technicians and their plans, but every person and object that could conceivably be considered by the Chinese as useful assistance of the kind that the Russians had so far provided.

That was the basis of their feeling of betrayal, and it continues as the basis of the relationship between the Soviet Union and the Government of the People's Republic of China. Anyone who has visited China—I am not sure whether the right hon. Gentleman has—will know that the relationship between those two great Powers is all-pervading and not just some passing fad. It is an attitude that is based not merely on political ideology.

If we accept that the relationship between China and Russia is relevant to this issue, I hope that I may be permitted to quote the words of Mr. Schlesinger, who until last month was the Secretary of Defence in the United States Government. He recently came to London and during the course of an address to the Royal United Services Institute he described China as "NATO's best ally". Where does that put Her Majesty's Government in their relationship with NATO and China? Two days ago I asked the Secretary of State: what strategic criteria he applies to the sale of military equipment to Communist countries which are not members of the Warsaw Pact; and how this compares with the criteria applied to countries that are members of the Warsaw Pact. The Secretary of State replied: Proposals for the export of defence equipment to Communist countries are considered individually in relation to the normal criteria and, in particular, to our obligations to our NATO allies."—[Official Report, 17th December 1975; Vol. 902, c. 654.] I am sure that our NATO allies would express very natural and righteous concern if we were proposing to sell this aeroplane to East Germany. However, that is not and has never been the case. I submit that the recent conclusion of the Spey deal between Rolls-Royce and the Chinese Government knocks holes in the Government's arguments about the disadvantages of selling military equipment to the Chinese Government. I shall discuss the Spey deal later.

NATO is set up to protect our strategic interests. One wonders what the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence regard as our strategic interests. I should like to quote briefly from Volume XIX of a book entitled "Soviet Studies" and prepared by the University of Glasgow. This may appeal to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It says: The concept of what is 'strategic' defies a clear-cut and universally acceptable definition. In the narrowest sense, it covers items of direct military use and such items are reasonably easy to identify and define. On the other hand, extremists—such as Bernard M. Baruch, a well-known American expert on war production and defence—would regard any item as being of strategic value because if the opponent country wants it is must strengthen that country in one way or another. Others would take a stand somewhere between the two views. A general non-committal definition may be taken as: 'strategic items are those raw materials and manufactures (including munitions) which would increase the military strength of the Soviet Bloc'. I have quoted that passage because I do not believe that China is an "opponent country" of NATO or the United Kingdom. It is certainly not a member of the "Soviet bloc." I should welcome the Minister's comments on this point. In any event, I cannot imagine a more easy way to insult the Chinese Government than to suggest that they are members of the Soviet bloc. The Chinese do not believe that the Soviet Union is even a Communist Government. They regard the Russians as Social Imperialists holding down the countries of Eastern Europe under threat of a military take-over.

I shall spare the House further quotations but perhaps the Minister of State will look at the 28th November edition of the Peking Review and especially page 9, because that will further enlighten him about the current views of the Chinese Government and their relationship with the Soviet Union.

Mao Tse-tung has said: My enemy's enemy is my friend. If NATO considers the Warsaw Pact countries its potential enemy, led, of course, by the Soviet Union, it goes without saying that if the Chinese Government also consider the Russian Government their enemy, applying the principle "My enemy's friend is my friend", we should be considering how we can best help, within our own national interests, the Chinese Government to defend themselves against their own considered enemy. I understand that the Soviet Union would not look kindly upon Her Majesty's Government selling the Harrier to the Chinese Government. However, I hope that we have not yet reached the time when Her Majesty's Government are in a position to be dictated to by any Government, let alone by the Soviet Government, as to what our foreign and defence policies should be.

I have dealt at length with the political and strategic arguments. The second point raised by the Secretary of State in the letter which I quoted earlier was that the Chinese have not yet asked for the Harrier.

I have lived and worked in the Far East. I have some minimal understanding of the attitude and atmosphere surrounding negotiations with the people of that part of the world. As anybody with any knowledge of the area will know—and certainly as Hawker Siddeley salesmen know—we cannot expect the Chinese Government to send a memo or chitty to our Government saying "Please may we have 200 Harriers?" That will never happen unless we make the first move.

I have reason to believe that in principle the Chinese Government are interested in the Harrier. I say no more than that, but I have good reason to believe that that is the position. If begun, the negotiations will be protracted and no doubt there will be problems over payment. Perhaps Her Majesty's Government are holding back because of concern about the payments situation. We must remember that the Chinese have oil and there are many ways in which the detailed negotiations could be concluded, but they will never be concluded unless the negotiations begin.

Let me remind the House of what happened when Hawker Siddeley tried to sell the Trident, a civil airliner, to China. Over a period of 18 months Hawker Siddeley tried without success to obtain Her Majesty's Government's blessing to sell to the Chinese. Its salesmen were refused all the way along the line until finally Pakistan International Airlines sold five second-hand Tridents to China. Thereafter, Her Majesty's Government's opposition towards Hawker Siddeley evaporated because it was seen that opposition was irrelevant.

Hawker Siddeley has concluded a most successful commercial deal on Tridents with the Chinese, totalling well over £100 million. Those aircraft have been paid for in cash. I see no commercial reason why negotiations on the Harrier should not be started by the British Government.

Let me turn to the attitude adopted to these matters by the United States Government. The United States via McDonnell Douglas has concluded an arrangement with Hawker Siddeley under which Harriers will be built under licence in the United States. It is not too farfetched to suggest that the United States Government would not at present altogether welcome Britain selling the Harrier to China. From the Americans' point of view, the question could be reopened in five or even seven years' time—but in that time McDonnell Douglas will be producing Harriers under licence. It is conceivable that the attitude of the United States Government will change.

I hope that it is not too cynical to say that most Governments take a pragmatic view of the way in which their own economies can benefit from such sales. President Ford has just visited China. I should not be in the least surprised if his visit were followed by a visit by a General Dynamics sales team to Peking to discuss the sale of the F 16.

The Harrier is a unique aircraft. I cannot imagine that the United States Government or the French Government, if they were in our shoes, would ever become involved in the process of hanging back. The reluctance which Her Majesty's Government have continued to show over this subject must seem surprising to them. I am sure that if the Harrier had been a French or American aircraft, sales teams from those countries would have had a roving commission looking for markets. The British attitude to the sale of the Harrier is sadly reminiscent of the present British attitude to selling anything! Last Friday I addressed the Christchurch branch of the United Commercial Travellers Association. Many of its members asked me to press the Government to put a salesman in the Cabinet. That would not be a bad idea.

That concludes the "external" part of my argument. To sum up, I believe that it would be good for Britain and NATO if we were to sell the Harrier to China.

I had a meeting yesterday with the shop stewards of Hawker Siddeley Aviation and I understand only too well their urgent demands for Government action to protect their jobs and to increase employment opportunities in the aviation industry. Hawker Siddeley Aviation may soon be nationalised, but whether it is or not, these men will need jobs and that means orders for aircraft. The Minister should expect increasing pressure from trade unionists within the industry on what they see as a decision affecting their jobs and their future.

If a quantity of Harriers were ordered by China, employment would be spread throughout Hawker Siddeley's factories all over the country and to numerous other industries and component manufacturers. This is a most important aspect of the issue, which I am sure the Minister will consider carefully.

Under successive Governments, the British aviation industry has been bedevilled by politics. Sir Kenneth Keith was quoted in The Times as saying, earlier this week, that the whole British procurement policy in the past has been one of casting bones to starving dogs. Those are strong words from a man who should know. He has just returned from Peking with a hard-won order of £100 million worth of business from the Chinese Government. The Harrier has the Rolls- Royce Pegasus engine, an order for which would bring badly needed work at the Rolls-Royce factory in the Bristol area.

I hope that the Government will recognise that the aviation industry has a future and that companies like Hawker Siddeley Aviation and Rolls-Royce represent significantly more impressive and worthwhile companies for the future of this country than a company like Chrysler. With 1¼ million unemployed the employment argument is vital, but so, too, is the export value of this order. The sale of 200 Harriers would bring us between £500 million and £700 million worth of exports and create thousands of jobs in Bristol, Brough, Hamble, Hatfield and the Lucas and Ferranti factories in Coventry and Edinburgh. The north, south, east and west of the United Kingdom would benefit.

Sadly, our country has a history of failure to create, let alone exploit, exports of our technological inventiveness. Recently we have also had a history of failure to realise the opportunities being created in a changing world. The proposed visit of the Secretary of State for Trade to Cuba is an example of this. The Foreign Office attitude towards international political changes in the world appear to be, first, distaste, secondly, reluctant acknowledgement, thirdly, an awakening to reality and, fourthly, activity—but by then it is often too late to exploit the opportunities.

One of my constituents returned recently from Hanoi. He said that it was swarming with Japanese salesmen and there were plenty of French and American salesmen about, but he was the only Briton they had seen for many weeks. There are enormous opportunities for the sale of technology to China and Asia and I believe that Hawker Siddeley has the ability to sell aircraft and aviation equipment to the Chinese.

I have congratulated the Secretary of State for Defence on arranging the sale of the maritime Harrier to the Royal Navy. The previous Conservative Government neglected this in a thoroughly unsatisfactory manner during their time in office. I can also congratulate the Government for doing their part in bringing about the sale of the Spey engine to China.

I finish with another quotation from Chairman Mao: A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. The Spey deal is surely a giant stride, and I hope that the British Government will smooth the path towards the sale of the Harrier to the Government of China.

3.45 p.m.

The Minister of State for Defence (Mr. William Rodgers)

The hon. Member for Christchurch and Lymington (Mr. Adley) is very persuasive today. He certainly has no need to apologise for raising this matter, and he has made his case in a very thoughtful way. If I am unable to give him entire satisfaction this afternoon he may like to know that it is useful for him to have put his thoughts on the record, and we shall reflect upon them in a constructive way.

In returning to the question of the sale of Harriers to China he has returned to a cause which he first raised with Ministers as long ago as July 1974. It is for this reason that I am glad to be able to deal with these matters more fully than is possible in reply to Parliamentary Questions or even in correspondence. There is no argument between us that the questions that he raises are important. As he said, they are important not only for the aircraft industry and therefore for employment—he mentioned the meeting he had with shop stewards yesterday to which he kindly invited me, but which I was unable to attend—but also for Britain's overall trading position and the balance of payments.

I know that the hon. Gentleman recognises that the implications are not only industrial and economic but international and diplomatic, in the fullest sense. I know that the hon. Member will not misunderstand me when I say that the matter is not only an eccentric and rather special interest of his. On the contrary, he is raising a matter today of widespread interest and concern.

I answered a Question on the matter early this year from the hon. Member for Hastings (Mr. Warren) and I have also had discussions with my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn and Hatfield (Mrs. Hayman), who is always assiduous in the conduct of her constituency responsibilities, which involve many Hawker Siddeley workers.

But the issue itself goes back even further than the honourable Gentleman's identification with it. The Chinese first mentioned the Harrier to us some three years ago, when the first Trident was handed over. Quite properly, Hawker Siddeley Aviation made the Government aware of this at the time. As I understand it, Hawker Siddeley then said to the Chinese that it would like to be able to sell Harrier to them. It added, however, that such a sale would require the approval of the British Government, which would need to take into account a number of factors, including international aspects. Hawker Siddeley made it plain that while it could not be assumed that approval of the sale would in the end be forthcoming, it would welcome further information about Chinese requirements.

I do not think that the position has changed fundamentally since then. We know, as the hon. Gentleman has said, that Hawker Siddeley would still like to sell the Harrier to China. He understands—as he made clear this afternoon—the fuller implications of such decisions. The fact remains that we are still short of hard information about Chinese requirements.

The hon. Gentleman said that in a number of informal ways the Chinese have shown their continued interest. I would not dispute that, and I am sure that that would be the view of Hawker Siddeley, also. The question is at what stage this interest can be considered sufficiently firm as to justify the Government taking it seriously.

The burden of the hon. Gentleman's case was that we should take it seriously now, that we should not let the opportunity pass. But the matter is a great deal more complicated than that. It is important to consider timing. If, in the event, the Government feel that they can support such a sale, they want to be reasonably confident that it will go forward.

I should like to say a word about the sale of Speys to China. The deal announced last week is of great importance. The value of it to Rolls-Royce and to this country is, as has been reported, up to £100 million. However, it could be more significant than that, because it represents a further step along the road opened up by the sale of the Trident. In other words, it is evidence that there is a substantial and growing market in China which the British aircraft industry can exploit to the mutual benefit of both countries.

However, it would be naïve to assume that the sale of Spey engines is necessarily as welcome to some of our international partners as it is to us. Of course, there is an element of commercial jealousy, which we must discount. But there are more fundamental strategic considerations. There is a long-standing agreement, as the hon. Member for Christchurch and Lymington said, between ourselves and other members of COCOM on the export of military equipment of important strategic significance, and we have to take this agreement into account.

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has seen the interesting leading article in today's International Herald Tribune, which is reprinted from the New York Times, on the significance of the Spey deal. The opening paragraph states that The triangular relationship among China, the Soviet Union and the West enters a new phase with Britain's $160- million contract to provide Peking with Rolls- Royce jet engines and the technology for their manufacture. I should not dissent from that. The article ends by saying: For China, the chief factor in seeking better relations with the United States, West Europe and Japan undoubtedly was the need for political support to counterbalance the Soviet threat. But it is now clear that a second reason for Peking's rapprochement with the West was to gain access to modern military equipment. This is a factor that may actually promote stability in the delicate triangular Soviet- Chinese-Western balance". I would not necessarily dissent from that, but I mention this article because it makes the point, which the hon. Gentleman has fairly acknowledged, that even the Spey deal has wide implications. A deal involving the Harrier would have even wider ones.

I want to say a few words about COCOM. The initials simply stand for Co- ordinating Committee, and membership comprises the 15 NATO nations, excluding Iceland but with the addition of Japan. The committee was originally set up in 1950 to agree and keep under review a list of military equipment, arms and munitions which should not be exported by the West to the Sino-Soviet bloc for fear of compromising our own security.

Although this consultative process dates back to the 1950s, it remains important to us, for commercial as well as strategic reasons, to ensure that we do not provide a potential enemy with military technology that he could not develop for himself and hence allow him to benefit from the expertise that we have carefully built up and nurtured in certain areas. On the other hand, we must not allow the strategic considerations of the 1950s to dictate what can or cannot be sold to Communist countries in the very different circumstances prevailing today.

The hon. Gentleman referred to 1970 and to the changes that have occurred in China since then. I understand that he has recently visited China. Five years ago I made a personal application to pay such a visit, and received no acknowledgement. At that time I was a prohibited visitor. Without making any comparisons, the fact that he was able to visit China recently and I was denied the opportunity some years ago is a sign of the times. Therefore, in looking at the COCOM restrictions we must be alert to change and we must be discriminating. We must not take anything for granted.

We should not allow the genuine safeguards that we, as an alliance, quite rightly apply to the export of military equipment to be used by our partners to protect their own national commercial interests. I would not deny that sometimes there may be a place for the hon. Gentleman's declared cynicism in this respect. In short, we should consider whether these controls should be applied realistically and should fully reflect present- day circumstances. We have to make sure that they do make sense. That is the plain, short story.

If they do not make good sense, there is a danger that the process of mutual agreement that has worked so well over the last 25 years may suffer, as individual countries are tempted to go their own way in frustration at restrictions that are over-rigid and outdated.

The Spey deal does not, in our opinion, conflict with this philosophy, even though it has caused some concern amongst our COCOM partners. But the Harrier, as an integrated military weapons system, poses us problems of a very different order from those of the Spey. Nevertheless, as the hon. Member conceded, the fact that we have authorised the Spey deal shows that we are prepared to consider requests for advanced technology from the Chinese as sympathetically as possible and that we are willing to meet them in the same positive spirit, provided this can be done in a way that is consistent with our own security interests and our obligations to our allies.

These obligations would present us with considerable difficulties in respect of the Harrier. For our part, we have given very careful consideration to the military, political and international implications of such a sale, but we could not guarantee that our allies would agree with our own assessment of the implications.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned Mr. Schlesinger's aphorism that China is NATO's best ally. I think that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that, in the first place, aphorisms have to be examined for content, and perhaps there is less content in this aphorism than he would suppose. Second, although Mr. Schlesinger was then representative of the American Government, he is representative no longer, and one does not know how far those views, even if the content matched the words, are genuinely those of those most affected in the United States.

I know that it has not escaped the hon. Member that China is not the only possible market for the sale of Harrier, in one form or another. It follows that matters of judgment are involved about how future sales prospects can best be maximised.

We should therefore need to make a strong case to our COCOM partners for selling Harrier to the Chinese. In making such a case we would want to know when a firm order could be expected, the number of aircraft likely to be required, and what sort of delivery time scale was envisaged. At present we have no definite information on any of these points.

I hope that I have said enough to show the hon. Gentleman that we are far from indifferent to the prospect of a major sale of Harrier to China. I would only ask him carefully to consider the manner in which progress can best be made. Clearly, as he will see, this depends in the first instance on knowing more precisely the real interest of the Chinese in a significant purchase. An interest in principle, as he put it, is not really enough.

The hon. Gentleman has been very persuasive. We are aware of the Chinese interest, and have been for three years. The fact remains that, given all the considerations involved in such a deal, we must regard it as hypothetical for the present, while very ready to look further at it.

It being Four o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Pavitt.]