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British bid to sell China arms provoked Soviet ire: secret files

LONDON -- British efforts to boost relations with China by selling it military equipment during the Cold War provoked fury from the Soviet Union, newly declassified documents from 1978 showed Tuesday.

Britain thought selling Harrier aircraft to China, which was boosting its military capacity after Mao Zedong's death, could improve ties between the countries as officials started to think about the future of Hong Kong.

It was also seen as way of helping British industry, while the then prime minister James Callaghan was concerned that Britain was falling behind France in relations with China. But the plan hit trouble when the professional head of Britain's armed forces, Sir Neil Cameron, said that Britain and China “have an enemy at our door whose capital city is Moscow,” prompting a furious Soviet response.

Relations between China and the Soviet Union were poor at the time as officials believed China was trying to match its massive military presence.

Details of what happened emerged in files released by the National Archives in London under laws which permit secret documents to be made public after 30 years.

In October 1977, Callaghan said he wanted then foreign secretary David Owen to look at “reducing the qualitative discrepancy between UK/Chinese and Franco/Chinese relations.”

As part of this, Cameron was to visit Beijing in April 1978 and Britain decided that it should promote arms sales within certain limits.

Shortly before Cameron went to China, British officials in Moscow warned London that the Soviets would see any British military sales to China as “an unfriendly act” which could cause a “sharp” deterioration in relations. The situation got worse when, responding to a toast at a dinner in Beijing, Cameron said: “Our two countries are coming more and more together.

“This must be good, because we both have an enemy at our door whose capital city is Moscow.”

A British official in Moscow contacted the Foreign Office in London in May to say that a senior Soviet official had told him: “These statements cannot be considered as other than hostile in reaction to the Soviet Union and provocative in character.”

Callaghan did not seem too worried — he told Cameron after his comment: “He had provided the only interest and excitement of the past week,” according to an official note of their conversation.

But by August, when then trade secretary Edmund Dell was going to China, Callaghan was stressing the need for a more cautious approach and called for Dell's speaking notes to be toned down.

“I am not anxious to be the first to offer to supply the Chinese with offensive equipment. Hasten slowly,” Callaghan wrote on top of a note from Owen which attached the notes.

Callaghan said in his memoirs that the Soviets took “great exception” to the proposed deal between Britain and China. He added that China and Britain ended up signing a major seven-year economic deal but did not buy the Harrier aircraft because they were too expensive.

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