HL Deb 19 November 1976 vol 377 cc1599-602

11.17 a.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they have congratulated the new Governments in Australia and New Zealand upon their increased determination to play their part in countering the growing Soviet threat in the Indian and Pacific oceans.


My Lords, we welcome the determination of Australia and New Zealand to play their role in countering any threats to the stability of these two areas.


My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that assurance. But is he aware that some of us are a little concerned that the relationships between ourselves and our Commonwealth are not quite as warm as they used to be? Would the Government in that connection —this is a general question—endeavour to maintain this relationship? May I ask the noble Lord two specific questions: First, is he aware that the Prime Minister of Australia, Mr. Malcolm Fraser, on 12th January this year, commenting on Soviet naval expansion in the Indian and Pacific oceans, and giving his Government's reasons For re-activating the naval construction at Cockburn Sound (Cockburn Sound being able to take some of the largest ships, including American ships), said that this was no confrontation of the Soviet Union—having been charged by them in that connection—but that there was no such thing in that area as unarmed neutrality? Is the noble Lord further aware—

Several noble Lords

Order, order!


My Lords, on the first point the noble Lord made, I can give him a complete assurance that our connection and consultation with the Commonwealth is at least as good today as it has ever been, and we propose to maintain it, and indeed to deepen it. In regard to our relations with Australia and New Zealand, who of course have a primary interest in the two areas the noble Lord has mentioned, I can equally assure him that we discuss with the two Governments every detail of the implications for the stability and security of that area.

Baroness ELLES

My Lords, will the Minister therefore welcome the recent statement of the Prime Minister of Australia that they are going to increase their defence expenditure by 25 per cent.; and is it not somewhat ironical that this Government should be able to have, as according to the Minister they do have, such satisfactory consultations when the defence of this country is being cut by such a major figure?


My Lords, the noble Baroness may of course want to launch a debate on public expenditure cuts: one wonders. However, on the point she has made, it is not for me to comment on the internal policies of Australia except to say that expenditure by them on their own defence in relation to their allies is a matter for discussion between them and their allies, and I would regard this country as being pre-eminently a friend and ally of Australia. Similarly it would not be for the Australian Government to comment on our internal policy in regard to our own expenditure.


My Lords, would the noble Lord bear in mind that we have cut the strength of our Navy, and cut and cut the strength of both manpower and ships, over the last 10 years, and that if we are not able to exercise with the New Zealand and Australian Navies in the Indian Ocean we shall be of little help should they need support in their operations against the increasing strength of the Russian Navy in that area?


Yes, my Lords, this is a matter for discussion and argument, I agree. I would put it to the noble Lord, who is a former Service Minister himself, that our decision to concentrate our strength in NATO is a reasonable and practical one. Similarly a move in the Pacific and Indian Ocean area by the indigenous countries of that area to look to their defences and security is equally a sensible course to adopt.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the part that the New Zealand and Australian Governments can play in the Indian and Pacific Oceans is of a very limited character; and, as we have contracted out of that area, or appear to have contracted out, both the New Zealand and the Australian Governments have to rely, in the event of any intervention by the Soviet Union, on the United States of America?


Yes, my Lords, in so far as we can envisage the future, which is perhaps less dangerous than we anticipated it might be a few months ago, although it is dangerous to slip into complacency. I agree with my noble friend that the indigenous Powers in a given area must in the first instance rely upon their own efforts, but it is never the case that they are entirely dependent on their own efforts. They have allies, and very important and powerful allies.


My Lords, I should like to ask the Minister whether it is not true that a decision to rely upon the United States of America to assist Australia and New Zealand in the defence of the Pacific and Indian Oceans was in fact made by the Australian and New Zealand Governments many years ago; that therefore it was a deliberate decision of policy to rely on the United States rather than on the United Kingdom; and that the whole of the standardisation of their weapons has followed that particular policy?


My Lords, the noble Lord has put in direct terms what I was indicating in terms which I hope are more appropriate for a Minister —and he, too, was a Minister once. It is indeed a factor that the indigenous countries have a right to take the initiative in regard to the best courses for their own defence, and many years ago, as we have just been reminded, the two great Commonwealth countries of that area decided precisely to lean more markedly towards the United States than towards the United Kingdom.


My Lards, does the noble Lord remember that up to 10 years ago there was the joint exercise "Trincomalee", and that only because Britain took the lead in promoting this naval exercise with India and Pakistan, who had their own differences, was it possible to exercise with the Sinhalese, the Malaysian, the New Zealand and the Australian Navies together? Does the noble Lord not agree that we have a part to play as a member of the Commonwealth in bringing these sort of exercises about; and that, albeit we may make only a token contribution, as a catalyst we can make a moral contribution to exercises in that area between different navies which may have quarrels among themselves?


My Lords, I do not dissent from that. It is perfectly possible—in fact, it is happening —that, to the extent of our power, always remembering that our first concern must in modern conditions be to concentrate on Nato and the Nato capability, there will always be the possibility of such a contribution—token it may be, larger it could be; I cannot look into the future —and therefore I cannot fundamentally disagree with the noble Lord.