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South-East Asian Defence And Atomic Energy (Peaceful Use)

Volume 526: debated on Tuesday 13 April 1954

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With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I should like to make a statement upon my conversations with the United States Secretary of State, Mr. Dulles, which were concluded this morning.

Our talks covered a wide range of topics of common interest to our two Governments. We had a full exchange of views with reference to South-East Asia. We deplored the fact that on the eve of the Geneva Conference the Communist forces in Indo-China are increasingly developing their activities into a large-scale war against the forces of the French Union. They seek to overthrow the lawful and friendly Government of Vietnam which we recognise; and they have invaded Laos and Cambodia. We realised that these activities not only threaten those now directly involved, but also endanger the peace and security of the entire area of South-East Asia and the Western Pacific, where our two nations and other friendly and allied nations have vital interests.

Accordingly we, that is the Governments of the United States and the United Kingdom, are ready to take part, with the other countries principally concerned, in an examination of the possibility of establishing a collective defence, within the framework of the Charter of the United Nations—

—to assure the peace, security and freedom of South-East Asia and the Western Pacific. It is our hope that the Geneva Conference will lead to the restoration—

—of peace in Indo-China. We believe that the prospect of establishing a unity of defensive purpose throughout South-East Asia and the Western Pacific will contribute to an honourable peace in Indo-China.

Mr. Dulles and I also discussed developments in the field of atomic energy. It will be recalled that on 19th March the Soviet Ambassador in Washington was handed by the Secretary of State of the United States a concrete proposal elaborating on that portion of President Eisenhower's speech of 8th December, 1953, before the General Assembly of the United Nations, which dealt with the subject of peaceful use of atomic energy. The Government of the United Kingdom, together with several other friendly nations concerned, had been consulted and had concurred in the terms of the concrete proposal before it was given to the Soviet Government. No reply has yet been received from that Government, which is studying the proposal. We also noted that the British representative to the United Nations in New York, with the support of the United States and French representatives, had suggested that a call be issued for an early meeting of the Sub-Committee of the Disarmament Commission of the United Nations.

Will the right hon. Gentleman inform the House that he recognises that, in building up the strength of the free nations of Asia against aggression, it is vital that there should be a union of Asiatic countries as well as those of European descent, such as Australia, Britain or America? The essential thing is that this should be free to all the peoples of Asia and should not in any way be represented, as it may be misrepresented, as a defence of an obsolete colonialism.

I am obliged to the right hon. Gentleman for his question. What we have in mind, if I may speak our thoughts to the House, is that there could be brought into being, in this part of the world, something comparable to the N.A.T.O. organisation that exists in Europe. It is clearly evident to all hon. Members that no organisation of that kind can be effective unless those taking part in it have freedom and independence to express their will within it.

Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that we very much welcome the action that is being taken with regard to atomic energy, both in General Eisenhower's peaceful proposals and also in the proposals for the disarmament conference?

I am much obliged. I should like to mention one point which I should have made dear. During these discussions we have kept all the Commonwealth Governments very fully informed, and further discussions will be taking place with them.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the statement which he has made today will be deeply resented by the majority of people in Great Britain? Is he further aware that it will be universally regarded as a surrender to American pressure? Is he further aware that the interpretation that may be placed upon his statement, unless he clarifies it further, is that we shall assist in establishing a N.A.T.O. in South-East Asia for the purpose of imposing European colonial rule upon certain people in that area, and will he realise that if that course is persisted in it will estrange the Commonwealth members in that part of the world?

The right hon. Gentleman has a perfect right to express himself as the interpreter of British opinion. Other people have the same right, if they wish to do so. I can only tell the House that in my judgment this can be an instrument of the greatest value for maintaining the peace of the world. Perhaps I may add that I do not regard my negotiations with the United States as a question of somebody always giving way to someone else. I regard this arrangement as one which can do credit both to the United States and the United Kingdom. I am perfectly aware that when this question is raised in his own country Mr. Dulles will be criticised in the same terms as the right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Bevan) has used about me.

I should like to reply to certain questions he has asked. He is completely inaccurate if he suggests that there is a definite commitment to take certain action in certain sectors. That is not so. [HON. MEMBERS: "What is it?"] If the right hon. Gentleman will listen to my answer instead of interrupting—

If the right hon. Gentleman says that he did not interrupt me, I accept his statement. What I made absolutely clear—perhaps I may requote my words to the House—is this:

"Accordingly we …are ready to take part, with the other countries principally concerned, in an examination of the possibility of establishing a collective defence. …"
Is it wrong for Britain to do that? When one talks of colonialism, have not we our interests in Malaya, as well as everybody else?

Would not the right hon. Gentleman agree that before any of us commits himself too definitely and specifically to an interpretation of this agreement, it ought to be more carefully examined? In particular, have we got his assurance that he does not propose to proceed any further than the examination of the project and will not commit this House or this country definitely to any scheme which is unacceptable?

I am obliged to the right hon. Gentleman. It is completely clear in my statement that what I am committed to is an examination. The House will understand that we could not possibly have gone further. Other countries are deeply concerned—France, to take one example. What we have done is to say we are prepared to examine these things. The effective outcome of that examination, in its turn, will be greatly influenced by what happens at Geneva. I hope that those critics who thought that we were going to issue some fulminating declaration before the Geneva Conference took place will realise that we are as anxious as they are—and perhaps more so—to see the Geneva Conference succeed.

Would not the right hon. Gentleman agree that the very worst way of attempting to halt the advance of Communism in Asia is even to appear to support what certainly all the nations of Asia, including members of the Commonwealth, would regard as an untenable French colonisation in Indo-China? Will not at any rate the appearance which has been given of doing that have a most disruptive effect on Commonwealth nations in Asia?

The wide examination in which we have engaged is a step which can be of service in bringing peace to the world.

Would my right hon. Friend agree that what is resented by the right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Bevan) is usually not resented by the British people?

Will the Foreign Secretary say whether it is still the main objective of Her Majesty's Government to go to the Geneva Conference in order to secure a peace honourable to all the parties who were involved in the conflict in Indo-China?

Yes, Sir—most emphatically. All I said was that when hon. Members are critical of the French attitude they might bear in mind the action of the Communists in the onslaught they have made with artillery—which has just come from somewhere—upon French fortifications in Indo-China.

Is it not a fact that the proposed defence alliance in South-East Asia could not possibly be effective in any military way for several months, and is it not, therefore, a fact that this call at this time is made for political purposes? Is not the logical assumption, therefore, that this is a deliberate attempt to sabotage the Geneva Conference, which opens in a fortnight's time? Before he sets himself up as an interpreter of public opinion, had not the right hon. Gentleman better leave the way clear for the second Scottish by-election result?

As a result of these discussions, I have agreed to the statement which has now been made, and I invite the House to study it and to observe, amongst other things, that it covers not only South-East Asia but also the Western Pacific, where we have the deepest and most intimate relations with our Commonwealth partners. I should very much like to see an arrangement which resulted in collective defence between them and us and, if possible more intimate strategic relations with them, too.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that in South-East Asia, where I have just been, there are many people who are trying to make democracy work —Asiatic people at that? Is he aware that this announcement today will give them courage and hope?

Can the right hon. Gentleman now say whether he has agreed with Mr. Dulles who is to take the initiative, as I presume the matter will not come before the United Nations organisation? Is it to be the United States of America?

What we have done so far is to put the statement out at once, because I wished to give the House immediate information. Mr. Dulles was good enough to comply to enable me to do this even before—[Interruption]—right hon. Members are always interrupting me. I know that this time it was not the right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale; I entirely exculpate him. It is just that he is in a slightly motivated corner of the Front Bench. We agreed to put out this statement before consultations took place with the French Government so that the House could have the fullest possible information. Clearly we must await the reaction of the other most interested countries before we turn to what should be the next steps which we should take. We are not issuing, and we do not issue, diktats to other nations. [Interruption.] I think hon. Members might let me explain, as Foreign Secretary. We have simply offered to other countries a suggestion which we think has hopeful features in it. If it can be developed and results in a contribution to peace, the whole House. I believe, will welcome it.

Is the Foreign Secretary aware that the restrained questions and comment of the ex-Prime Minister and present Leader of the Opposition will command the overwhelming support of the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party?

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the cautious programme which he has outlined will command immediate respect among all those who are following the situation closely and, when it is understood by the public, will be regarded as a triumph for his diplomacy?

May we know whether the other countries in the Commonwealth, and particularly the Government of India, which is so vitally concerned in this matter, were consulted before the agreement was reached?

No agreement has been reached. What we have agreed is to examine certain possibilities. All the Commonwealth Governments, including of course the Government of India, have been informed of these proposals and will be consulted as the matter develops.