HL Deb 18 July 1940 vol 116 cc1039-44

4.6 p.m.


My Lords, may I ask His Majesty's Government whether they are now in a position to make a further statement about recent negotiations with the Japanese Government?


My Lords, on June 24 the Japanese Government requested His Majesty's Government to take measures to stop the transit to China via Burma of war materials and certain other goods. A similar request was made in respect of Hong Kong. The continuance of the transit of these materials was represented as having a serious effect on Anglo-Japanese relations. An agreement has now been reached with the Japanese Government as follows: With regard to Hong Kong, the export of arms and ammunition from Hong Kong has been prohibited since January, 1939, and none of the war materials to which the Japanese Government attach importance is in fact being exported. With regard to Burma, the Government of Burma have agreed to suspend for a period of three months the transit to China of arms and ammunition as well as the following articles: Petrol, lorries, and railway material. The categories of goods prohibited in Burma will be prohibited in Hong Kong. In considering the request made by the Japanese Government, and in reaching the agreement to which I have referred, His Majesty's Government were not unmindful of the various obligations accepted by this country, including their obligations to the National Government of China and to the British territories affected. His Majesty's Government were, however, also bound to have regard to the present world situation; nor could they ignore the dominant fact that we are ourselves engaged in a life-and-death straggle.

The general policy of this country towards the Far Eastern troubles has been repeatedly defined. We have persistently asserted our desire to see assured to China a free and independent future, and we have as frequently expressed our desire to improve our relations with Japan. To achieve these objectives two things are essential—time and a relief of tension. On the one hand, it was clear that tension was rapidly growing owing to the Japanese complaints about the passage of war material via the Burma route. On the other hand, to agree to the permanent closure of the route would be to default on our obligations as a neutral friendly Power to China. What we have therefore made is a temporary arrangement in the hope that the time so gained may lead to a solution just and equitable to both parties to the dispute, and freely accepted by them both.

We wish for no quarrel with any nation of the Far East. We desire to see China's status and integrity preserved and, as was indicated in our note of January 14, 1939, we are ready to negotiate with the Chinese Government after the conclusion of peace the abolition of extra-terrilorial rights, the rendition of concessions and the revision of treaties on the basis of reciprocity and equality. We wish to see Japan attain that state of prosperity which will ensure to her population the welfare and economic security which every Japanese naturally desires. Towards the attainment of the aims of both these countries we are prepared to offer our collaboration and our contribution, but it must be clear that if they are to be attained it must be by a process of peace and conciliation and not by war or threat of war.

4.12 p.m.


My Lords, it would not, I think, be the general desire that we should now embark upon a discussion of the important statement made by the Foreign Secretary; but I must say in two or three sentences that it increases my regret that, owing to the persuasiveness of the Foreign Secretary and various representations that were made, we did not have a discussion on foreign affairs some time ago, as was proposed, because one of the main reasons which prompted me to put that Motion on the Paper was that we might be able to discuss this very matter before a decision had been arrived at. I can only say that I am afraid this seems to me a most unfortunate arrangement, and I hope it will not have the bad effect in China and elsewhere which one fears it will have. I would like to ask the Foreign Secretary, although I noted carefully the words he used in his statement, whether or not this agreement implies any departure by His Majesty's Government from the principles of the Nine-Power Treaty to which this country is pledged.

4.14 p.m.


My Lords, I understand that it is the general desire that this matter should not be debated today, and I also understand that it is likely to be raised and discussed fully when the House has a formal debate on foreign affairs next Wednesday. At the same time I would again suggest, as I have done on previous occasions, that this particular topic might be better discussed in private than in public. I do not suggest that secret debates should be frequent. On the contrary, it is of great importance that even in time of war national and international affairs should be discussed freely in both Houses in the presence and in the hearing of the whole nation and of the world, but there are occasions and there are matters on which secrecy should be observed in assemblies such as this. The other House already has had three secret debates. This House has only had one, and that not on foreign affairs, and I would earnestly submit to the consideration of noble Lords that the debate next Wednesday should be held in private.

As for the subject matter of the noble Viscount's statement, it is to be observed that the arrangement is of a temporary character, in the hope that during the next few months peace may be reached between China and Japan. If that hope is not fulfilled—and it is a very problematical one—then it may be that this arrangement will have to continue indefinitely. The temporary often slips into the permanent. For my own part I can only say that such a course would, in my view, be exceedingly regrettable and indeed deplorable.

4.16 p.m.


My Lords, it obviously is impossible for us to have a general, or indeed an adequate, discussion of a statement of such gravity as that which we have only just heard for the first time, but, like the other noble Lords who have spoken, I feel I must say this, that I have heard with dismay the statement which the Foreign Secretary has made, not, I need hardly assure your Lordships, because I have any wish to see a conflict with Japan, and not because I should not rejoice as much as any member of His Majesty's Government at any action which, in my opinion, would render such a conflict less likely. I accept all the arguments which are used, or may be used, by those who defend the policy made in the announcement we have just heard, but I dispute their application, and it is not because I do not want to see the tension removed, but because I differ fundamentally from His Majesty's Government as to the best way of removing conflicts between ourselves and other nations. I fully recognise that in such matters the decisions must rest with the responsible Government, but if Parliament is to serve any useful purpose even in war-time it must retain its right of independent judgment, and those who differ from His Majesty's Government on matters of grave political importance must in Parliament say so frankly and freely. I will say no more on this occasion. I hope we shall have another opportunity of expressing our opinion in greater detail, but I felt I should be lacking in my duty if I said less now.

4.18 p.m.


My Lords, before the noble Viscount replies, if he is to reply, I should like to ask him three questions. The first is whether the British Ambassador in Moscow was consulted as to the effect on the relationship between this country and the Soviet Union this decision would have. Secondly, I should like to ask whether His Majesty's Ambassador in Washington was consulted as to the effect this decision would have on the relationship between the United States and Great Britain. We have just had a very important communication in this respect from America, stating that Mr. Hull has protested against the closing of the Burma road. Radio analysts and editors are sharply critical, while both Nazi and Japanese propagandists are working hard in the United States to widen the breach. The British action has seriously undermined the position of those who, like Colonel Stimson, advocate a strong policy against Japan, and American people, it is stated, are commencing to turn anti-British, which is a very dangerous situation. My third question is to ask whether the Canadian Prime Minister was consulted before this decision was reached.

4.20 p.m.


My Lords, if I might, with your Lordships' leave, say another word, I think it is due to noble Lords who have made observations that I should make some reference to them. First of all, if I may begin at the end, with regard to the questions the noble Lord who spoke last addressed to me, I need hardly say that in all the quarters to which he has referred we took steps to see that our Ambassadors and representatives were informed. While it would not be fitting in answer to a question to specify the degree of exchange of view, I think the noble Lord may rest quite satisfied that these considerations were not overlooked. With regard to the Dominion of Canada, I can also truly say that they were kept fully informed of what His Majesty's Government had in mind. It is, of course, no surprise to me that on this matter there should be many of your Lordships who feel the force of everything that has to be said or can be said upon the side of doubt and appreciation of the difficulty involved in the decision to which His Majesty's Government have come. I certainly would be the last person to differ in any way from what fell from the noble Earl on the Cross-Benches, when he said that whatever might be the responsibility attaching to His Majesty's Government, it was the inexpugnable right and duty of Parliament to express their view. As far as I am concerned, I shall be very happy for this House of Parliament to avail itself of whatever may be the most appropriate opportunity of doing that.

The noble Lord, Lord Addison, asked me a specific question with regard to the Nine-Power Treaty with which I think he will find my statement had implicitly dealt. I was careful to say that His Majesty's Government had not been unmindful of the various obligations accepted by this country, and to that Treaty, of course, this country was a party. Then the noble Viscount, Lord Samuel, made a suggestion, that has also reached my noble friend the Leader of the House from other quarters, that it might be desirable and useful if this matter with other matters were to be debated at the right time in secret. So far as I am concerned, representing the Foreign Office, I should raise no objection to that, if that is the general desire of your Lordships, and I think it may well be that on this occasion it might be advantageous, both to those who speak and to those who listen, that the proceedings should be so conducted.

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