Chancellor Philip Hammond has warned that the UK’s relationship with China “has not been made simpler” by Gavin Williamson’s plan to send the Royal Navy’s aircraft carrier to the Pacific.
In a thinly-veiled rebuke to the Defence Secretary, Mr Hammond said decisions about HMS Queen Elizabeth’s deployment should be a matter for the National Security Council, which would also consider the economic considerations.
Beijing reportedly pulled out of trade talks with Mr Hammond following Mr Williamson’s announcement that the carrier, laden with F-35 Lightning stealth jets, would deploy to the region on its maiden operational voyage.
Mr Hammond said he was “disappointed” by China’s reaction and insisted that no decision had actually been taken on the carrier’s deployment.
Asked if the relationship with Beijing had been damaged by Mr Williamson’s actions, the Chancellor said: “It’s a complex relationship and it hasn’t been made simpler by Chinese concerns about Royal Navy deployments in the South China Sea.”
Beijing has been involved in a dispute over navigation rights and territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Mr Hammond said he was “disappointed that the Chinese have reacted in the way that they have”.
He added: “This is entirely premature. The aircraft carrier is not going to be at full operational readiness for another couple of years, no decisions have been made or even discussed about where its early deployments might be.
“And when those decisions are made, they will be made in the National Security Council.”
His comments are at odds with Mr Williamson, who used a speech on February 11 to say “the first operational mission of the HMS Queen Elizabeth will include the Mediterranean, the Middle East and the Pacific”.
Asked if Mr Williamson should “button his lip”, Mr Hammond told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think that it is very important that we manage this relationship with China very carefully and that we do it through the National Security Council.”
A Government source said Mr Williamson’s speech had been cleared in advance by Downing Street, the Cabinet Office and the Treasury.
Prime Minister Theresa May’s official spokesman said: “Our relationship with China is a very important one. We have strong and constructive ties on a range of issues and we will continue to do so.”