Hammonds visit to China not going ahead


Chancellor Philip HammondImage copyright

A visit to China by Chancellor Phillip Hammond has been called off amid reports a speech by the UK’s defence secretary angered Beijing.

There were plans for trade talks between Mr Hammond and senior Chinese government figures during the brief visit next week.

But a Treasury spokesperson said: “No trip was ever announced or confirmed.”

Earlier this week, Gavin Williamson had indicated the UK’s intention to send an aircraft carrier to the Pacific.

Unconfirmed newspaper reports claimed the Chinese government was unhappy about Mr Williamson’s speech on Monday.

In it he announced the HMS Queen Elizabeth would be deployed to the region, as well as the Middle East and the Mediterranean, on its maiden voyage.

China is currently involved in a dispute over territorial claims in the Pacific. Six countries have competing claims over the South China Sea islands.

Mr Williamson also said that China was “developing its modern military capability and its commercial power”.

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Meanwhile, former Chancellor George Osborne said he found it “very difficult” to work out the UK government’s policy on China.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster: “You’ve got the defence secretary engaging in gunboat diplomacy of a quite old-fashioned kind.

“At the same time as the chancellor of the exchequer and the foreign secretary are going around saying they want a close economic partnership with China.

“Ultimately it’s the responsibility of Theresa May to sort this out. At the moment it looks all at sea.”

‘Golden era’

Prime Minister Theresa May visited China for three days last year in a bid to boost trade and investment.

Ahead of the trip, she said her visit would “intensify the golden era in UK-China relations”.

Speaking at the time, she said she expected China to play a “huge role” in the economic development which is why she would be “deepening co-operation with China on key global and economic issues.”

How important is China to the UK’s economy?

UK trade with China has increased dramatically in recent years.

The country was the UK’s 26th largest export market and 15th largest source of imports in 1999.

In 2018, China was the UK’s sixth largest export market worth around £20.8bn a year, according to HMRC. Cars formed the major part of trade this trade.

Thames Water, Hinkley Point nuclear power station, Scottish flight comparison site Skyscanner, Pizza Express and West Bromwich Albion FC are among those to have recently received investment from Chinese companies and entrepreneurs.

But growth in China’s economy is slowing.

Official figures released last month showed its economy expanded at its slowest rate (6.6%) since 1990, while car sales in the country fell by 6% in 2018 – the first fall in two decades.

The rate of expansion has raised worries about the potential knock-on effect on the global economy.

Why is the South China Sea contentious?

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Media captionIn August last year, a BBC team flew over the disputed South China Sea islands in a US military plane

Rival countries have wrangled over territory in the South China Sea for centuries, but tension has steadily increased in recent years.

Six countries have competing claims over the territory: China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei.

They dispute who owns ocean areas, and two island chains – the Paracels and the Spratlys.

It is possible the largely uninhabited islands may have reserves of natural resources around them and the sea is also a major shipping route and home to fishing grounds that supply the livelihoods of people across the region.

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