HL Deb 17 July 1940 vol 116 cc983-6

3.5 p.m.


My Lords, I desire to ask a question of which I have given my noble friend private notice—namely, whether he is in a position to make a statement on the negotiations with Japan.


My Lords, as you will be aware, His Majesty's Government recently received certain requests from the Japanese Government concerning the passage of supplies to China. His Majesty's Government have been considering these requests, and have made substantial progress towards an agreement for a specified period with the Japanese Government. By reason, however, of the resignation of the Japanese Government I have no further official information as to the conclusion of the agreement, and I am accordingly unable to make a full statement at the present time. I hope to be in a position to do so at an early date, and I should hope to be able to do so to-morrow.


My Lords, in view of what my noble friend has said, that he hopes soon to make a full statement, I will not trouble your Lordships with any prolonged observations at this moment. At the same time perhaps it may be a convenience to him and to your Lordships if I state very briefly some of the considerations which induced me and others to put this question to the Government. I need not say that we have no desire whatever to embarrass the Government or add to the immense difficulties with which they are coping at the present time, but it would be of no assistance to them to conceal the fact that these negotiations have caused considerable anxiety in a large section of the public. There have been a great many statements as to what is going on, and of course the change of Government in Japan has not diminished our anxieties in any way.

I merely call my noble friend's attention to the two broad statements which are being made. One is a statement that there is some idea of trying to use the influence of this country to produce peace between the two countries. If I may say so very respectfully, I hope the Government will be extremely cautious in proceeding on any line of that kind. I cannot myself conceive any possible peace which we could advocate in any sense or form unless it was preceded by the withdrawal by Japan from all occupation of Chinese territory. I do not anticipate that at this moment the Japanese Government are likely to consent to that condition. Your Lordships will realise the anxiety which certainly is being felt in certain quarters on this point if you try to compare the situation to a proposal by some Power to mediate between us and Hitler in the war in Europe. I feel sure that we should resent any such proposal very bitterly, and I do not think it would be at all likely to produce any good effect on Hitler's mind. Therefore I hope that that will be very cautiously considered before any step in that direction is taken.

May I just add a word on the other great topic which of course everyone knows has been raised, the question of the Burma road? So far as I know—I speak under correction naturally—we are doing nothing in the least unneutral in allowing the road which goes through Burma to be used for the passage from private sources or from any other sources of goods which are going to be sold in China or have already been sold in China. It is the ordinary use of any traffic route. I should have felt, personally, great reluctance for this country to impose any obstacle on the use of that road in the normal way, and that reluctance is certainly not diminished by the statement that is reported in to-day's newspapers as having been made by the American Secretary of State apparently on those lines. I do not wish to go into that at all, but still that is a very difficult position indeed. Again I hope His Majesty's Government will be, as I am sure they will be, extremely careful before they commit themselves in any way to something which would appear to be like assisting Japan against China.

I recognise fully—we all recognise—the immense seriousness of the position. I am not going to underrate it and I am not going to dwell on it—that perhaps would be very undesirable in existing circumstances—but everybody who thinks about it at all must recognise the immense gravity of the situation there and elsewhere. I am most anxious that we should do nothing to hinder the Government in taking whatever steps they think will really diminish the gravity of the situation, but I would beg them to consider very carefully whether the policy of concessions to Japan, apparently under threats, is likely to diminish the gravity of the situation. I should have thought, without venturing on controversial topics, that the history of the last months and years would have sufficed to show us the extreme gravity of a policy of that kind. I am far from wishing to dogmatise on the matter. I recognise to the full the extreme difficulty of the position and the great responsibility that weighs on the Government, and I only hope they will not do something which will increase that difficulty and not diminish it.

I have before me—we all have before us—the quite recent history of our transactions with Japan. We did something which was supposed to have been done with a view of removing our difficulties in Tientsin. I dare say everything we did was perfectly right and proper—it is not my purpose, at any rate on this occasion, to utter a word of criticism about it—but in point of fact the immediate results of the settlement of that question was to produce a further demand, or at any rate to make clear a further demand, from the Japanese that we should diminish or obstruct the traffic on the Burma road. The moment we began to consider that, and apparently in a more or less friendly attitude, there was a change of Government in Japan. I am not sufficiently versed in Japanese politics to know exactly what that change means, but it was a change apparently provoked by the military section in Japan and I am afraid it is not very likely to be a change which will make the position easier than it was before. These incidents seem to make it extremely doubtful whether a policy of concessions to Japan is likely to produce the results which some people hope from them.

As I say, if the Government are satisfied that it is in the interests of the State and the interests for which we are now struggling in Europe, theirs is the responsibility. We can only point out to them and to the country the difficulties in which we may be placed by any rash or unduly hasty action in this matter. We have got to consider not only the material and immediate results of any action we may take, or non-action, but the ultimate results—results on which victory in this war will depend—and we must consider even results beyond that as to what will be, on the whole, for the benefit of the Empire and the world of any transactions in which we may be engaged. These are very grave matters. We shall not win this war merely by the strength of arms, even by the magnificent bravery of our airmen, our sailors and our soldiers. We shall win this war because we have the sympathy and support of the public opinion of the world which believes that we are fighting for what is right and what is necessary for freedom, truth and justice, and I hope we shall do nothing which will diminish the confidence of the world in that respect.


My Lords, may I by leave of the House merely add one word? I do not want to enter into debate with the noble Viscount opposite on this occasion, but I shall be sorry if he, or any other of your Lordships, were to think that any of the grave matters to which he has referred had been absent from the minds of His Majesty's Government. I hope that your Lordships will see well to await the fuller statement that, as I say, I hope to be able to make to-morrow.