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Volume 475: debated on Tuesday 13 May 2008

In light of the recent devastating earthquake in China, I am sure that I speak for the House in extending our deepest sympathies to the families and friends of all those affected. I commend the Chinese Government for their rapid and efficient response to the crisis.

Our relationship with China is strong and growing. The Government believe that engagement with China is firmly in the UK’s national interest.

China’s development offers opportunities for co-operation and advancement on key global challenges. Our engagement allows us to tackle all issues with China, including human rights and internal reform.

I am sure that the House would wish to be associated with the Under-Secretary’s sentiments about the Chinese earthquake. The earth’s fragility has been awesomely demonstrated through the recent tragic events in south-east Asia, as has the need for the world to rely on itself and our mutual dependence for aid and assistance. Does the Under-Secretary believe that, in the medium term, those events might help China revisit its obligations on issues such as carbon emissions? Much more urgently in the short term, does she believe that China’s experience of tragedy today will ensure that it urges the Burmese Government this afternoon to do all they can to allow aid and assistance in immediately, given that it is waiting on the borders and needed to deal with Burma’s tragedy?

The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary made that point when he spoke to his counterpart in China just before this Question Time. I understand that China is now requesting international support for the situation. We know that the position in China is much better than in Burma. There is much more infrastructure and the Chinese Government are much more capable of supporting people. We know that the situation in Burma is dreadful. Without the help and support being readily offered by the international community, many more people will die. We will continue to urge China, as well other countries in the region, to make those points to the Burmese Government. This is not a political issue; it is a humanitarian issue. On climate change, we are in discussions with the Chinese on the development of technology. We will continue to work on those issues, which affect us all and on which we need that international co-operation.

The Foreign Secretary has used strong words on the subject of Burma and the responsibilities of other countries, such as China, to assist in getting humanitarian aid instantly—not in a few days—to Burma. The United Nations has established the principles of the right to intervene and the responsibility to protect. We chair the Security Council; surely we can do more than we are now.

We will support any and all activities that will take the matter forward and get that aid into Burma. It is clear that the US and the European countries on the Security Council are ready to move the issues forward. We are pressing to get that aid in. What is important is not just the physical aid, which is already under great pressure, but the need for people who can distribute it. There are development workers on the ground, but they are not disaster relief experts. We need disaster relief experts there. Burma needs to let those people in now.

The Minister has just told the House that the Government’s relationship with China is strong and growing. Will she also tell us what action the Foreign Secretary has taken in expressing our concerns to the Chinese Government that that arms shipment should never have been sent to Durban? It was only as a result of the brave decision of the dockers in Durban that that shipment did not go to Zimbabwe, where it would have been used by a vile regime.

I am sure that we all applaud the stance taken by the dockers in preventing that shipment, which demonstrates the importance of civil society acting in such situations. We on the Labour Benches support the role of trade unions in that. We are working for an international arms embargo to Zimbabwe and will continue to do so.

Following the previous question, will we use our good offices with China to express the disquiet felt throughout the House and the country about China not only training but arming regimes all across Africa?

We need to recognise that China can choose to play a positive role in the world, too. We know that China is putting a great deal of aid into Africa. We of course express our concerns about human rights and negative actions, and through our engagement with China we are unable to do so better.

I add the condolences of the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru to the people of China on the terrible circumstances of the earthquake. The Minister used the same words as the Red Cross in Beijing today to describe the response there—the Red Cross said that it was “swift and very efficient”. Should the Burmese Government not pursue the same course of action? What will the Minister and her EU colleagues do in concrete terms to persuade them to emulate the Chinese approach?

Of course—that is exactly what should happen and that is what we are doing. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development is at the EU Development Ministers meeting doing precisely that. The problem is that the Burmese Government are failing to grant visas for the aid workers to enter. The world is ready to help. This is not a political situation; it is a humanitarian disaster. The Burmese Government need to grant those visas and let people in, so that they can begin to save lives.

I shall shortly visit Taiwan to attend the inauguration of the new, democratically elected President of that country. What pressure are the Government bringing to bear on the People’s Republic of China to live in peaceful co-existence with its small neighbour and to remove the 1,000 missiles that are directed from mainland China towards Taiwan?

It has been Government policy for a long time to support a one China policy, and our position on Taiwan is well known and has not changed. However, we certainly look to both sides to avoid unilateral measures that raise tensions across the straits, and we will continue to engage in confidence-building measures. In that respect, I support what the hon. Gentleman has said.