HL Deb 06 July 1982 vol 432 cc659-62

2.56 p.m.

Lord Rhodes

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 come to a conclusion about removing China from Cocom procedures and thus changing the status of China from that of a member of the Eastern bloc to that of a friendly nation.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Belstead)

My Lords, at present it remains the policy of Her Majesty's Government that the export of strategic items to China should be subject to Cocom control. However, a wide range of British defence equipment is available to the Chinese within this framework.

Lord Rhodes

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there is very little difference between what he has said this afternoon and what he said on 19th May? Further, is he aware that during the month of June there has been a dramatic change in the attitude of the United States of America towards this question, to their advantage and to our detriment?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, if it follows what the noble Lord, Lord Rhodes says, the attitude of the United States of America will, no doubt, be made evident within the context of Cocom. However, as things stand, it is necessary for there to be unanimous agreement among our Cocom partners for China to be removed from the list of proscribed recipients. If I may repeat what I know I have said before to the noble Lord, British views about Chinese interests have been put forcefully to our Cocom partners and in Cocom we have supported a flexible approach towards China to give due weight to China's relations with other countries.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, can the noble Lord say which of our Cocom partners is resisting liberalisation?

Lord Belstead

No, my Lords. The negotiations, or at least the exchanges, within Cocom are confidential.

Baroness Llewelyn-Davies of Hastoe

My Lords, in view of the initially disappointing response of the Minister, although he did explain later that we were pressing our partners, have the Government really taken on board the dramatic difference in the United States' attitude to this, that they are now proposing all kinds of trade ties with the Chinese—scientific, technological and educational exchanges-and that we may be in danger of losing the very great advantages which we first had in making advances to the Chinese before the Americans?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I understand the concern of the noble Baroness, which she has expressed before, but I would remind the House that the United States —as indeed, all the other Cocom partners—is operating within the Cocom context if it is trading with those countries which are listed as the proscribed recipients of goods. I think we should just add that in practice Cocom procedures are at present probably less of a restraint to British defence sales to China than current Chinese economic retrenchment or readjustment policies. I think that it is right just to bear that in mind.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, does the Minister agree that in the long term there could be tremendous opportunities for both China and Britain if there could be closer co-operation between our two countries in the field of information technology, and that some initiatives would be particularly welcome if they could be taken within Information Technology Year, 1982? Does the Minister know what steps would have to be taken for us to be able to escape from the constraints that Cocom imposes on trade in hardware and software respectively?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, the answer to that question is that one of the periodic reviews of the Cocom strategic exports embargo lists is going to start in October. Our objectives will be to revise the embargo lists in such a way as to safeguard our, and Western, strategic interests, but with the minimum necessary disturbance to legitimate trade.

Lord Davies of Leek

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that that expression he has just used, to revise the embargo lists, is a vital necessity to Britain's trade? Is he further aware that I myself can vouch that we lost a contract for rolling stock in China because rolling stock was put on the embargo lists? Secondly, is he further aware that the Chinese Ministers have now said that where they buy they have to sell? Last, is he further aware that the third greatest dealing nation with China is the United States of America, as vouchsafed this week by the National Council for USA-China trade? When is Britain going to wake up and play a part and stop talking of the "Falklands spirit", but build up the chances of international trade?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, the essence of the noble Lord's question is that the existence of the lists is detrimental to our trading interests. I should like to give the noble Lord an assurance that efforts are being made to speed up the handling of case work in order to provide decisions more rapidly. A British proposal to this end is currently under consideration in Cocom.

Lord Morris

My Lords, may I ask my noble friend whether he would consider carefully on behalf of Her Majesty's Government the advice given to him by his officials in view of his right honourable friend the Prime Minister's impending visit in September to China, and to do something in the direction suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Rhodes, because I am convinced that this would undoubtedly give a fillip to his right honourable friend's visit at that time?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, the forthcoming visit of my right honourable friend the Prime Minister reflects the long history of friendship between the British and Chinese peoples. I should just like to add to my noble friend Lord Morris, that of course we keep our policies, including the policy we are discussing this afternoon, towards China under constant review.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, may I suggest to the noble Lord that he recommends his colleagues —

Several noble Lords


Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that I am about to suggest that he should exercise with his colleagues a modicum of care in defence sales to China, as, with the Argentine, he may never know who they are going to be used against?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, our defence exchanges with China have developed over the last few years and there has been a series of high level visits in each direction. The sale of defence equipment forms a part of our general trading relationships. But, in considering defence sales on a case-by-case basis, strategic implications are always kept in mind.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, is the Minister making it clear to the House that the Government would in fact like to see China removed from the lists, and that the only thing that prevents this is the attitude of the other signatories to that agreement?

Lord Belstead

No, my Lords, I am not saying that, first of all, because the exchanges within Cocom are of a confidential nature, and, secondly, because what I have said is that within the context of Cocom we are supporting a flexible approach towards trade with China.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that his replies are a little unsatisfactory? Is he aware that there has been unequivocal support from Her Majesty's Government for some time for Chinese communism? Surely it would be wise in the circumstances for the opportunities to be given to British exporters in following the political stance that the Government have taken?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, the Government believe that the opportunities for British exporters within the context of the Cocom rules are very considerable. I would repeat that, in practice, Cocom procedures are at present probably less of a restraint to China, certainly so far as defence sales are concerned, than current Chinese economic retrenchment or readjustment policies.

Lord Stewart of Fulham

My Lords, before the Prime Minister visits China—

The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Young)

My Lords, we have now had nearly nine minutes on this Question, and may I suggest that we take the noble Lord, Lord Stewart, who has been trying to get in for some time, and then move on to the next business.

Lord Stewart of Fulham

My Lords, before the Prime Minister visits China, could she be advised to stop using the word "Marxist" as a term of abuse?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, as I said, the forthcoming visit of my right honourable friend the Prime Minister reflects a long history of friendship between the British and Chinese peoples. I know that my right honourable friend is looking forward to the visit, and so I believe are the Chinese.