HL Deb 17 May 1898 vol 57 cc1506-21

, in rising to ask Her Majesty's Government what were their intentions as to the occupation of Wei-hai-Wei, said: My Lords, I think the noble Marquess opposite will not be surprised that I have placed on the Paper the Notice for to-day about Wei-hai-Wei. There is, no doubt, considerable anxiety as to the course which Her Majesty's Government intend to pursue with regard to the occupation of that port. It seems to me that the occupation must be regarded in two aspects: first, to a considerable extent from the professional aspect of what the precise advantages of the port may be from a naval point of view, and what should be done to make it as valuable for that purpose as possible; and, second, from the point of view of the policy of this country with regard to the Far East, and on what that policy is based. As regards the advantages of the port from a naval point of view, I am, of course, not in any way competent to express an opinion. All I can say is that, having read with great attention a variety of opinions expressed by experts on the subject, I remain no wiser than I was before. Opinions differ very much as to its probable utility; but, my Lords, I conclude that this, at all events, is a point which the Government must have carefully considered—namely, whether it would be necessary to fortify the port and to garrison it with British or Indian troops; and also whether or not it is to be regarded as a second naval base to Hong-kong, or merely as a place where ships can go in from time to time, and from which you can watch what takes place in the neighbourhood of the Gulf of Pechili. For my part, although, as I said, I am no expert, I have consider able doubts whether the advantages are so great as some people represent them to be. At all events, it seems to be quite clear that any advantage which may be derived from the naval point of view must be restricted to the particular quarter of China which adjoins the Gulf of Pechili. For other purposes our base at Hong-kong will be sufficient, as it always has been. Apart from these questions, which are certainly not without their importance, unless some considerable strategic advantage is obtained, it will clearly be a very great burden on this country to have to keep a large garrison at Wei-hai-Wei; nor would it be matter of indifference if you were to attempt to make it a large fortified port. In that case I conclude it would require considerable expenditure of money. If, however, it is really of first-rate importance as a naval base, no one in this country will grudge the expenditure which may be necessary for that purpose. I rather anticipate to hear that it is regarded by Her Majesty's Government as of somewhat Secondary importance. Now, with regard to the policy connected with Wei-hai-Wei. There again I feel consider able doubt from the utterances which we have heard on the subject, and from the Papers—which I, of course, have studied—that have been laid before Parliament. The noble Marquess, I think in February last, said in one of the dispatches addressed to our Minister at Pekin that the interests of this country and Russia were not antagonistic. What I think the noble Marquess said was that he agreed entirely with an observation of Count Muravieff to that effect. The subsequent proceedings of Her Majesty's Government seemed to be based on a different view, because it appeared that it was the occupation of Port Arthur by the Russians which in their view necessitated our occupation of Wei-hai-Wei. There is another thing which has puzzled me. One of the remarks of the noble Marquess was that the occupation of Port Arthur by Russia was a mistake on the part of Russia, or, at all events, it wan balanced by our occupation of Wei-hai-Wei. Well, that, I must say, rather perplexed me, and I was also Unable to understand from the first how it was that the Government did not perceive that, if Russia were to extend her dominion to Manchuria, it was absolutely certain that the ice-free port which she would possess in Manchuria would be occupied by her as a naval base. It was perfectly clear to everyone that Russia would not occupy Manchuria merely for the purpose of having a commercial port, but that she would insist upon having a naval base in Manchuria. I am unable, therefore, to understand why Her Majesty's Government did not from the first base their policy, whatever it might have been, on the knowledge that in all probability the naval base to be selected by Russia in that quarter of the world would be Port Arthur. I suppose it is not unfair to assume that our occupation of Wei-hai-Wei is an answer to the occupation by Russia of Port Arthur. Now what does that imply? It implies clearly a policy of direct antagonism to Russia in that quarter of the world. Now, if we are to place ourselves in this position of direct antagonism, it is necessary to consider how far Wei-hai-Wei will be of avail in enabling us to maintain that position. I must not be understood to say that I desire that we should be placed in antagonism to Russia. I am arguing on the supposition—which, I think, is the only one which can be derived from the course recently pursued by the Government in the occupation of Wei-hai-Wei—that our antagonistic position to Russia in that quarter of the world is regarded by them as inevitable. I think that this is perfectly clear, and Her Majesty's Government have throughout, I think, the later stages of these proceedings clearly perceived and admitted that the power of Russia in the Far East, after these remarkable changes which have taken place, is a power which is derived from her position by land. When Russia has completed her Siberian railway, and that section of the railway which brings her down to the open sea in the Gulf of Pechili, her military power in that quarter of the world will be enormously increased. Although we have been taught by the celebrated work of Captain Mahan that a sea Power has a considerable effect, even with regard to the operations of another Power by land, yet I cannot conceive that the possession of Wei-hai-Wei—while Russia occupied Manchuria, and occupies it, as she pan perfectly do, with a very large military force—can enable us successfully, by that means, to resist the advance of Russia in the direction of Pekin. Therefore I do not see that the occupation of Wei-bai-Wei, looked at from that point of view, will be an advantage to this country. Of course, I will not pass over what I think was pointed out by the noble Marquess himself, and what I admit—namely, the temporary advantage to us of Wei-hai-Wei. After all that took place with regard to the negotiations in the East, to which I do not wish to refer this evening, I can conceive that Her Majesty's Government felt that their influence at Pekin would be seriously diminished unless they in some way indicated that they were by no means abandoning the position of this country in that part of the world. I can conceive that, for a time, the measure of occupying Wei-hai-Wei might assist us in maintaining our position diplomatically at Pekin. But I desire rather to consider the occupation of Wei-hai-Wei from the point of view of what permanent advantage it may be to this country, and what policy is implied by it in the Far East. We have had some remarkable utterances on this subject. The noble Marquess, in a very interesting speech which he made to a very interesting body—the Primrose League—recently said— As long as the Chinese Empire remains upright, I do not think that that power (the power of Russia by land) can be exercised even if Russia desires to exercise it—which I am by no means asserting—to the injury of the rest of the world. Now, my Lords, that seems to assume that China is upright. I should have said that "upright" was the last epithet which could describe the present position of China. China is not upright; it is prostrate, and I do not myself at present see by what means she is to be raised to such a position of restored power as to enable her successfully to resist the pressure of her powerful neighbour to the north. I am not the only person who takes that view. I suppose most of us have been, I will not say startled, be- cause I think that may be regarded as a strong expression, but immensely interested in a speech which was made by a distinguished colleague of the noble Marquess a day or two ago. There are many things in that speech which have no connection with the subject-matter I am now bringing forward, but I find there a long reference to our position in China. Now, in the first place, I observe that, far from admitting that China is upright, Mr. Chamberlain, in the speech to which I am referring, after saying that nobody was prepared for the total collapse of China, goes on to say— From the moment that you recognised that fact—namely, the collapse of China—you had to see that China, unless she were assisted from outside, is absolutely at the mercy of the great military empire, with its hundred million inhabitants and its 4,000 miles of land frontier on the boundary of China. That declaration is not consistent with the view of the noble Marquess that China is upright, and that as long as China is upright there is no danger from Russia; but if Mr. Chamberlain's view is correct—and I must say I entirely agree with it—China is in such a condition that she is unable to hold her ground against her great neighbour without assistance from without. Now, will the possession of Wei-hai-Wei give us the power of effectively assisting her from without, if ever—I do not wish to anticipate it—Russia should take measures to march southwards, and perhaps occupy Pekin? It seems to me that is an impossible proposition. It is quite impossible to conceive that the mere possession of Wei-hai-Wei could enable us to resist such an advance if it were really undertaken. Well, then, it may naturally be asked, with Mr. Chamberlain, because he made an allusion to the position of affairs when we were in office—did we foresee the position in which China would be placed by its collapse after the war with Japan, and did we take any measures to prevent the consequences which might follow from the collapse? Now, my Lords, I have not much to say on that subject, but I will be quite explicit. We were perfectly alive to the enormous change which must necessarily follow from the collapse of China, in consequence of her defeat by Japan, and we had to consider—Mr. Chamberlain alludes to it—whether or not we should join with the three other Powers—Russia, Germany, and France—who invited us to join in the measures which they took to compel Japan to relinquish possession of Port Arthur. My Lords, knowing, as we did, that that step on the part of those three Powers would have considerable after-results, we came to the conclusion, nevertheless, first, that we were not justified in interfering, as regards a war in which we had taken no part, with the victorious power; and, secondly, we were of opinion, looking to the great change impending in the Far East, that there was nothing more important to this country than to establish a friendly relation with the growing naval Power of Japan. A naval Power will always be of more consequence as a friend to this country in that quarter of the world than any other Power, and I believe that a more seriously mistaken policy could not have been committed than to have joined the other Powers in that action against Japan, thereby alienating her from this country. My Lords, it has been asked by Mr. Chamberlain: "What did we do? Why did we take no steps to come to a timely understanding with Russia?" How was it possible, diplomatically, in the circumstances in which we were placed? The Treaty of Shimonoseki was not signed till nearly the middle of April, and the late Government of which I was a member, was turned out of office in June. I think that anybody will see that between April and June it would have been absolutely impossible for us to establish a fresh understanding with Russia. Far be it from me to say that such an understanding would not be desirable; on the contrary, I think it would have been of great advantage, but I do say that the reproach cast upon us by Mr. Chamberlain is answered simply by this: that the position we were in, whatever we might have intended or thought, rendered our entering into such an understanding absolutely impossible. I am not in the least disposed to indulge in any tu quoque—an argument of little force—but I cannot help remarking that if such an understanding were desirable and possible, Her Majesty's present Government have had two-and-a-half years in which to discuss and consider it. So much for that matter. To return to the question of policy connected with Wei-hai-Wei, and the Far East generally: I must again refer to Mr. Chamberlain's speech, and I refer to it, not for the purpose of going into general questions of foreign policy, which, I think, would not be germane to this occasion, but because he bases the greater part of his rather remarkable utterance upon the position of affairs in China. Towards the close of his speech he laid it down very strongly that our position there is one which must necessarily place us in some difficulty on account of the change of situation, and the conclusion, apparently, at which he arrived was that such was the position and such was the pressure upon us that the time had arrived when we were to make a vast change in our diplomatic attitude—a change which would affect not only our attitude in China—for it could not be confined to China—but throughout the world, and that we were to abandon the principle upon which we have for many years acted with regard to our foreign affairs, of not engaging in what are commonly called entangling alliances with other Powers, but, on the contrary, that it was our duty to seek for alliances. Now by these alliances can only be meant alliances for mutual defence. No other alliances can possibly be pointed at. Now alliances for mutual defence, of course, imply taking a position of antagonism against somebody. An alliance of that nature in the Far East must mean an alliance against Russia. I am by no means saying that we ought to keep out of view the great and growing power of Russia, but when I am told that the moment has come that a warning requires to be given to the nation that the policy pursued for so many years is to be changed, and we are to seek for alliances, I ask myself whether this is the moment—whether the moment has arrived when so great a change should be sought to be brought into effect; and I ask myself this also—can it be (of course I am not in the secrets of the Government) that Her Majesty's Government have so far advanced in that direction that ere long we may hear of the conclusion of some great alliance with a powerful European nation? For although I value as much as any man a good understanding and close friendship with the United States, yet I cannot conceive of an alliance of that kind with the United States, because it is contrary to all policy which the United States has hitherto pursued. The alliance, therefore, must be sought elsewhere—it must be sought in Europe. Can it be that Her Majesty's Government have advanced in that direction so far that the time has arrived when the announcement of a change of policy has to be made by a conspicuous Member of the Cabinet? I cannot conceive that such an announcement would otherwise be made. And for this reason, that, although it is, no doubt, extremely true that in these democratic times you have to carry the country with you, yet, on the other hand, the country will expect that your foreign affairs shall be conducted in such a way as to be likely to be successful, and you will not gain pardon, if you are unsuccessful, merely by saying, "Oh, we thought it was necessary to tell you what we were thinking" Now, it appears to me that unless Her Majesty's Government have given such indications to other Powers on this subject, and those indications have met with such a reception that they are justified in bringing this before the country as a matter which it ought seriously to consider, because the time may not be far distant when an actual alliance may be concluded—unless they have done that no possible step could be taken more likely to prevent the conclusion of such an alliance than such statements as those of Mr. Chamberlain. It is from that point of view that I complain bitterly of such a speech having been made. My Lords, it is not, I imagine, possible for any man who has been connected in any way with the conduct of foreign affairs in this country to shut his eyes to the possible danger which may arise from our isolation, nor can one keep out of mind that it might be possible—I am not saying at this moment it is desirable—for the very safety of this country to enter into an alliance, if it can be found, for mutual defence with other Great Powers. But the crisis of affairs when that should be seriously attempted, in my opinion, has not arrived. Little, indeed, can I see the day when it will arrive. With reference to another part of Mr. Chamberlain's speech—namely, an attack upon our commercial supremacy—I do not think there is the remotest chance of an alliance based upon commercial policy with any nation. What might happen is this—there may be cases where the interests of other nations coincide with ours; and if their interests and ours are the same in any great crisis, it may be necessary, if it be possible, for this nation to enter into such an alliance for mutual defence. I will not believe, until I hear it, that Her Majesty's Government intend to enter into an alliance of mutual defence for the purpose of maintaining our position in China—knowing as I do that such a alliance could not be conducted on the principle of limited liability, but that mutual defence would mean mutual defence in every part of the world. Now, my Lords, I end by saying that I do not precisely see the great advantage that we have derived from Wei-hai-Wei. I am most desirous—and I believe the country is also—clearly to understand what is the basis of the policy of Her Majesty's Government in the Far East. We wish to know that the Government have some clear view as to the policy which is to be pursued by them, and unless there is something in it which is entirely contrary to the safety of the country, it will receive no obstruction from this side of the House.


My Lords, the notice of the noble Earl was to ask what are the intentions of Her Majesty's Government as to the occupation of Wei-hai-Wei. It was impossible for me to foresee in that notice an intention on the part of the noble Earl to enter upon a lengthened examination and refutation of Mr. Chamberlain's speech at Birmingham; and indeed I do not think he could have had that intention, for he put the notice down before the speech was delivered.


Quite true.


But I do not feel that I ought to enter upon such a discussion without the advantage of notice, and without the still greater advantage of having in my hand the speech of my right honourable Friend. It is evident that the greater part of the argument of the latter portion of the noble Earl's speech turned upon the interpretation to be placed upon various sentences uttered by Mr. Chamberlain at Birmingham; and I could not, without adequate opportunity of examining the accuracy of the noble Earl's investigations, undertake to discuss such a matter with him. I will dwell upon one matter only which he referred to, and which has been alluded to by Mr. Chamberlain—namely, the effect on the present state of affairs of the policy pursued by the late Government at the close of the Japanese and Chinese War. I very much concur with the general principles which the noble Earl laid down—that is to say, it was not desirable that we should join in ousting the victor from the results of the victory he had won; and still more, that it was greatly contrary to our policy to do anything that would alienate the rising power of Japan, with whom we had so many grounds for sympathy and co-operation. I entirely concur in that view, and if I were to venture on a criticism of the policy of that time, it would be from a totally different aspect. I should have doubted the wisdom of this country standing by and seeing Russia and her allies driving Japan out of Leaotong peninsula without taking some security that Russia was not doing that with a view to future operations. My impression is that that might have been a condition obtained at the time—that all parties who took a share in that arrangement should have bound themselves not to deprive China in the future of the territory which they were then preserving. That would have been a security which, I think, Japan would have joined with you in welcoming. That is the only point in the noble Earl's criticism on Mr. Chamberlain's speech which I will venture to examine, because it is obvious that it is easy to draw the most general conclusions from isolated sentences taken away from their context; and that without a careful study of the matter that comes before and the matter that follows, it would be impossible to say whether such criticisms are just. I prefer to confine my answer to the question of which the noble Earl gave notice, and to speak merely with respect to Wei-hai-Wei, which was the nominal text of his address. Now I think the noble Earl was somewhat hypercritical in his treatment of the metaphors which had been employed by myself and Mr. Chamberlain. If the noble Earl quoted us rightly—and I do not for a moment doubt it—it does appear that on one occasion I spoke of China in terms which might imply that she was upright, and that on another occasion Mr. Chamberlain spoke of China in terms which might imply that she was prostrate. No doubt those two metaphors are not on all fours with each other. But it does not follow that they cannot, both with perfect justice and truth, be applied to the same subject from different points of view. As far as it was a question of resisting the Powers at the moment, undoubtedly China was prostrate; she had no power at her command to range against the forces which Russia could have brought to bear against her. But if you take a wider view, and look into the future and ask what are the powers of which for future contingencies and difficulties China might dispose, I think you will conclude that, on a wide view of that kind, you never could pronounce that 400,000,000 of men who, whatever else they are, are the bravest of the brave—for they fear death less than any race of men we know of—could ever be absolutely prostrate. I do not in the least believe in the prostration of China in that wider sense. She has got a Government, of whose merits perhaps we will not speak in very enthusiastic terms; but still, it is a Government which enables an enormous commerce to be carried on. She raises a large revenue, and she has traditions of many centuries in the possession of an empire of unequalled compactness and magnitude. And she has this enormous population, who are united at all events by this one sentiment—that the thing which they hate most of all is the domination of the foreigner. What she wants is someone to lead her. Who shall say that these men will not appear, or that China is for ever prostrate, because she cannot give effect to the enormous material and physical forces she possesses? I should say that what China wants is courage, and one of the defences of the occupation of Wei-hai-Wei is that it had a tendency to strengthen China against despair, and to give her courage, if the occasion should arise, to stand up against her enemies. The danger of allowing the occupation of Port Arthur to take place without any corresponding movement on our own side was that China, or, at all events, large classes of Chinamen, would give themselves up to despair, and believe that the domination of one foreign Power was a destiny from which it was impossible for them to escape. It was our business to tell them that, as far as we were able to prevent it, that destiny would not overtake them. I do not know that we could have done anything more effective for restoring their courage, and I am quite sure that there was no more effective method of driving them to despair than, without some corresponding action on our side, allowing the military occupation of Port Arthur by the Power which already stands over such an enormous portion of their frontier, and threatens them with such a large preponderance of military force. My Lords, I think the mistake of the noble Earl's estimate of the policy in the East is that it has been somewhat too material. He has asked whether, on strategic grounds, Wei-hai-Wei would be of such enormous value. I do not care to answer him on that point, not because I doubt it myself, but because it implies for its treatment knowledge of experts which I do not possess. But what is really of importance is the effect which our policy should have upon the opinion of the East; and remember that in alluding to "the opinion of the East" I do not merely speak of the opinion of those 400,000,000 of Chinamen, all-important as they may be. But I recognise the fact that there are other ancient monarchies in the neighbourhood of China which appear now to be on an upward and progressive course, and whose policy and power will weigh heavily in determining the destinies of the future. It was most important that, not only in Chinese opinion but in Corean and Japanese opinion also, we should not be thought to have been throwing up the game in the neighbourhood of those territories which lie near Port Arthur. Therefore, as an agent operating on the opinions of large masses of men, I think the occupation of Wei-hai-Wei was a wise occupation. The noble Earl, I thought, rather intimated or hinted that we had done it lightly, and merely to satisfy a passing political necessity. I entirely repudiate that idea. I cannot understand on what it is based. Our position was simply this: we did not wish to see commenced in any degree the dismemberment of China. We did not wish to encourage it; and, above all, we did not desire to be thought by the Chinese and by the other nations to which I have referred to be ourselves on the look-out for territorial seizures, and to be willing to take part in the division of spoils which other nations might be looking to. Our object was not only to discourage the dismemberment of China, but to repudiate and throw off from ourselves the imputation and opprobrium that we were the persons who began it. For that reason we could say nothing about occupying any of the northern ports so long as no other nation was known to intend doing so. The noble Earl told us it was quite certain that Russia would seize a military port. I do not know where he got the information. I doubt very much whether, at all events as an early and immediate measure, the occupation of Port Arthur was resolved upon very long in the councils of Russia. But be that as it may, with our object of convincing nations in the East that we were not bent on territorial aggrandisement, it was necessary not only that we should believe that Russia was going to take Port Arthur, but that we should have practical, clear, and manifest evidence of her action and her design to justify us in taking a similar measure; and therefore it was that we said nothing about Wei-hai-Wei until we felt certain that Port Arthur was about to be occupied. What we are to do with Wei-hai-Wei is the next question which the noble Earl addressed to me. Well, I must remind the noble Earl that Wei-hai-Wei is at present in the occupation of Japan, and that we clearly can do nothing with Wei-hai-Wei until Japan has surrendered it into our hands. What is more, though we can very easily lay down general principles as to our conduct in this respect, anything like an answer in the nature of detail to that question is impossible until detailed information is obtained. That it will be our duty to garrison and protect it, so far as garrison and protection are necessary, is a truism to assert. That it is our object to improve the harbour and make it better for the purposes it will have to fulfil is, of course, another truism. But until we have minute information—such information as I imagine is yet possessed by no nation—we cannot tell how far operations for its improvement can be carried on with a certainty of sufficient success to justify the expense which would be incurred upon them. There are at present officers both of the Army and Navy on their way to Wei-hai-Wei. We are looking to them for reports, which I have no doubt will be both detailed and very valuable. We shall then be able to form, not only in general but in minute particulars, an idea of the precise extent to which expenditure will have to be incurred, and the precise manner in which that expenditure will be applied. I do not know, however, that, even when we have that information, I could promise to communicate it to the noble Earl across this Table. No doubt, on the other hand, if he has sufficient curiosity to ask me for it privately, I shall be willing to communicate it to him. But it is quite evident that, until we receive those reports, it is impossible for us to give any forecast of the precise nature of the measures we shall take for the defence and improvement of Wei-hai-Wei. There was, as the noble Earl is aware, a survey taken some time ago by the Admiralty, and from it we can clearly see that, even at present, it is a very valuable station in which a very considerable squadron can be harboured with safety; and I think we can also see that no very con- siderable expenditure will make it still more valuable than it is. And though it is perfectly true that we took a lease of Wei-hai-Wei in the first instance as a political measure in order to balance and compensate that which had been done by another Power, the noble Earl must not suppose that in our minds that is the only advantage which attaches to it. The advantage of Wei-hai-Wei is that it is a naval station and base in the midst of a region which is rapidly becoming of importance, and where commercial operations, growing larger and larger year by year, are likely to take place. Since Hong-kong was acquired, Japan has, so to speak, come into existence, and with this great project of carrying a railway across Siberia—which I lament has been diverted apparently to the service of military designs, but which, so far as it is only a commercial project, I hail as a great step in the industrial progress of the world—it is quite clear that the northern province of China and the Chinese Sea are likely to be very much more important in the future that they have been in the past, and will not be served sufficiently by a station so distant as Hong-kong, which was adequate for our purposes so lone as the centre of our interests was in Canton or even in Shanghai. It was necessary that we should have a coaling station and a naval station in those regions, and Wei-hai-Wei will answer that purpose; and I have no doubt that in commercial advantages it will amply secure us, and will mere than compensate us for any expenditure which may be incurred upon it. My Lords, I am sorry that I am unable to give the noble Earl in this matter more exact information; but I think that any impartial person will see that it follows from the necessities of the case that until we have had an opportunity for accurate survey neither the question of expense nor the question of improvements can be settled. As for our general policy, we have not changed, and I imagine we shall not change. We wish to see the Chinese Empire maintained. We do not believe in a European nation at that great distance, undertaking the government of these 400,000,000 of men. We believe that the only hope of the well-being of the population and for the growth of industry and commerce must be a reform in the government of the Chinese people themselves; and that in the prosecution of this reform they must be protected, so far as we can protect them, from any external interference with their destiny. We are anxious, if possible, that the interference of foreign nations shall be limited to that encouragement of domestic improvement which foreign nations have such enormous powers of giving. We earnestly trust that they will agree sufficiently not to hinder each other in carrying that good work forward—that they will not destroy the hopes of raising up a splendid industrial and commercial structure by quarrels over territories which can only end in the destruction of commerce and industries together; and to that end we shall cultivate to the utmost of our abilities the friendship of all Powers with whom we may come into contact. That end is the policy which Her Majesty's Government will pursue.