LONDON: Britain’s finance minister Philip Hammond has reportedly been forced to cancel a trip to China next week after plans to send a new aircraft carrier to the Pacific angered Beijing.
Hammond was set to visit China for trade talks with senior government figures, but has axed the trip after Beijing reacted angrily this week to news of the warship’s planned deployment, according to British media reports.
Although the visit was never formally announced by London, it had been under preparation for ‘many weeks,’ the Financial Times (FT) said.
Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson announced that the first operational mission of Britain’s new US$3.1 billion aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth would include the Pacific region.
In a strongly worded speech, he said adversaries were challenging ‘the rules-based international order’ while noting that ‘China is developing its modern military capability and its commercial power’.
The comments reportedly provoked anger in Beijing as well as consternation in British government departments eager to foster closer relations with the east Asian economic power.
Hammond had been expected to meet Chinese vice-premier Hu Chunhua but that was cancelled following Williamson’s speech, leading Britain to scrap the entire visit, the FT reported.
Meanwhile diplomatic sources told the BBC the Chinese had made it clear ‘it is not going to happen for now’. Britain’s finance ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
But a spokesperson told several media outlets: “No trip was ever announced or confirmed.”
China is highly sensitive about the South China Sea, which it claims as its exclusive territorial waters, and is mired in ongoing disputes with its neighbours and the United States over access.
Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam all claim parts of the vast waters, and the US and its allies increasingly send planes and warships to the region to make ‘freedom of navigation operations’.
In mid-January, British and American warships conducted their first joint military exercises in the sea since Beijing began building bases and air strips on islands there.
In the deployment announcement, Williamson said American F35s would be embedded alongside British planes on the carrier’s air wing, ‘enhancing the reach and lethality of our forces’.
The Chinese Embassy in London did not respond to a request for comment. — AFP