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UK's gunboat policy will likely sink its trade hopes: China Daily editorial | Updated: 2019-02-17 19:02
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The London skyline seen from Victoria Tower at sunset. [Photo/VCG]

The incumbents of Downing Street and the United Kingdom Treasury are reportedly tearing their hair out at the injudicious words of the UK secretary of state for defense who has ruined a crucial trip by the chancellor of the exchequer to Beijing.

A trip considered "a vital part" of the United Kingdom's endeavors to cement global trading links as it struggles to bring home the bacon after Brexit. A trip that British media claim would be worth 10.2 billion pounds ($7.88 billion) over a five-year period.

The British Treasury has confirmed Philip Hammond, its chancellor, will not travel to Beijing, but it has sought to downplay the incident claiming "No trip was ever announced or confirmed".

Nonetheless preparations for that unannounced, unconfirmed visit were reportedly "well advanced". Until that is, British Secretary of State for Defense Gavin Williamson torpedoed it with his remarks in London on Feb 11.

In a speech titled "Defense in Global Britain" outlining the British military's future direction, Williamson announced he would dispatch the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth to the Pacific and that Britain was prepared to use "lethal" force to deter countries that "flout international law". That rhetoric was broadly read as a less-than-subtle threat to China in the South China Sea, given it echoed that of the United States when referring to its naval operations in those waters.

It should come as no surprise then that Beijing would have second thoughts about committing to any trade engagement.

London has obviously realized the damaging potential of Williamson's remarks. Downing Street distanced itself from the statements, saying Britain has "a strong and constructive relationship" with China.

George Osborne, the former British Tory chancellor, is surely not alone in finding the British government's China policy baffling.

"You have got the defense 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," he told BBC Radio 4.

But of course the UK also wants a close economic partnership with the US and having spent 3.1 billion pounds on the warship, it needs to give it a purpose beyond the jingoistic nostalgia for a time when Britannia ruled the waves.

British officials were said to be in a "frantic round of diplomacy" to try to get talks back on track. But it will not be easy if its defense department insists on living in the past.

If Whitehall is determined to confront Beijing, it should not expect to profit from a warm relationship.

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