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Suez Canal

Volume 894: debated on Tuesday 24 June 1975

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asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the strategic significance for Great Britain and NATO of the reopening of the Suez Canal.

The Royal Navy will continue to deploy from time to time in peace time outside the NATO area and, in common with other navies, will benefit from the increased flexibility of deployment resulting from the opening of the Suez Canal. All maritime trading nations stand to benefit. As for NATO, the Suez Canal lies, of course, outside the boundary of the NATO area.

In view of the massive increase in the strength of the Soviet Navy in recent years and in view of the fact that, as the White Paper points out, this is out of all proportion to the needs of Soviet trade, can the right hon. Gentleman say what consequences flow from the reopening of the Suez Canal and whether this is the right time simultaneously to withdraw our forces from NATO ports in the Mediterranean area, which would be a new sea route, and deny ourselves the facilities of Simonstown?

The balance of influence in the Indian Ocean will not be significantly altered. It will grant increased flexibility to both sides. For the Soviet Fleet, the reopening of the canal will mean a reduction of 24 days in sailing time to the Indian Ocean, and we shall be able to be there 10 days sooner. It is flexible for both sides.

As for the Mediterranean, we still allow the Royal Navy to deploy occasionally in the Mediterranean with the naval on-call forces, and the hon. Gentleman will have noticed that since our statement about lessening our presence in the Mediterranean the French and the Italians have increased theirs.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the best way of enhancing our status in the Mediterranean and the Middle East is never again to embark upon policies which would bring world hostility, close the Suez Canal and make the British nation look foolish, as happened some years ago?

I hope that the House learned that lesson long before my Defence White Paper. Even if it had not, the new defence posture brings us more into line with what we can do. We intend to maintain our presence in the central region of Europe. We intend to play a part in the approaches of the Eastern Atlantic. We intend to make sure that the home base is secure. Therefore, we shall have few opportunities to become involved in exercises of the kind which sucked us into international conflict elsewhere.

Is it not true that the Soviet Union enjoys a factor of two and a half times in the reduction of sailing time over our own as a result of the reopening of the Suez Canal and, therefore, that the greatest strategic advantage attaches to the Soviet Union? As a result, is not the maintenance of the base at Gan, which commands the exit to the Red Sea, now of primary importance to this country.

Gan has nothing to do with shipping and port facilities. It is mainly an air station in the Indian Ocean. We shall still have transit and communications facilities in Diego Garcia.