Philip Hammond rebukes Gavin Williamson in China warship row
Philip Hammond has rebuked Gavin Williamson over comments he made that were said to have angered China.
The Chancellor admitted a pledge by the Defence Secretary to send an aircraft carrier to the South China Sea had not made relations with Beijing “simpler” and noted that the plan was "entirely premature".
Last week Mr Williamson announced the plans for the first operational mission of HMS Queen Elizabeth, expected to be in 2021.
But he is said to have sparked fears in Beijing that the deployment could approach the Spratly Islands, where China is engaged in an ongoing territorial dispute with Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.
It was reported that a planned meeting on trade between Mr Hammond and China vice premier, Hu Chunhua, was scuppered because of the comments by the Defence Secretary.
But Mr Hammond said the announcement should not have been made since the warship will not be at full capacity for some time.
“I am disappointed the Chinese have reacted in the way they have. But... this entirely premature. The aircraft carrier is not going to be at full operational readiness for a couple of years," he told the BBC Today programme on Radio 4.
“No decisions have been made or even discussed about where its early deployments might be, and when they are made they will be made in the National Security Council."
He added: “Our relationship with China is a very important one, but also a very complex one. There is a strategic and defence component, but there’s also a very important trade component.
“It is a complex relationship and it hasn’t been made simpler by Chinese concerns about Royal Navy deployments in the South China Sea."
During the speech on UK defence, Mr Williamson also warned that China was "developing its modern military capability and its commercial power".
It has been reported that the Chinese ambassador raised the apparent threat in a call with the Foreign Office.
An MoD official told PoliticsHome: "The Defence Secretary's speech was cleared in advance from No 10, the Cabinet Office and the Treasury."
It is understood that Mr Hammond will visit China in April after his recently planned trip was postponed.