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Security Relationships (South Asia)

Volume 533: debated on Monday 10 October 2011

First, I am sure the House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Lance Corporal Jonathan McKinlay of 1st Battalion the Rifles and Marine David Fairbrother of Kilo Company, 42 Commando Royal Marines, who were killed in Afghanistan on 14 and 19 September respectively. Our thoughts, as ever, are with their families and friends, for whom this will be an immense personal tragedy.

The south Asia region is one of the United Kingdom’s highest engagement priorities, and the Ministry of Defence enjoys strong historic relationships with most countries in the region. We have developed a broad range of positive initiatives to enhance co-operation between Ministers, senior officials and military officers, and continue to work to broaden and deepen those links in support of the Government's strategic objectives.

I join the Secretary of State in his tribute to the dead. May I also tell him that he has our full support, not least in deepening our security ties with south Asia? Will he use this opportunity to explain to the House his involvement in Sri Lanka?

I shall be delighted to do that, especially in front of so many Members with a new interest in defence.

In 1996, when I was a Minister in the Foreign Office, I worked on what became known as the Fox agreement, which was part of the early peace talks in Sri Lanka. In recent years I have been attempting to work again for reconciliation in that country, and to encourage investment in it. As I said when I spoke there recently, there will be no future for Sri Lanka unless all citizens, whatever their gender, religion or ethnic origin, are treated in the same way and allowed to realise their full potential.

I thank my right hon. Friend for the sterling work he has done in respect of Sri Lanka. Will he elaborate on the work that he has done in relation to the Sri Lanka Development Trust, and specifically on the work that Ministers have done in that regard?

As I have said, the point of involvement in Sri Lanka is to create greater stability which will contribute to stability in the region. I was particularly keen to see a mechanism for investment that could reduce some of the regulatory restrictions imposed by the Sri Lankan Government, on the basis that a proportion of the profits would go into social projects that would benefit ethnic minorities. I still hope that that project will succeed, and give it my full support.

Is not the general problem in south Asia as a whole the massive growth, modernisation and aggressive posturing of the Chinese military? As the Chinese launch a blue water aircraft carrier battle fleet, thanks to the Secretary of State’s handling of our affairs we will have no aircraft carriers from which planes can fly for the next 10 years.

For some 17 of the last 20 centuries China has been the world’s biggest economy, but our thoughts tend to be forged in the period when it was not. China will emerge as a global superpower, and as an Asian superpower it has a right to a blue water capability. What we must try to keep in check is what China’s intent may be, as well as the capability. Looking at the two together will give us an idea of the sort of threat that we may have to counter in the future.

I know that the Defence Secretary has a long-standing interest in Sri Lanka. Can he tell us how many times he has visited that country since becoming Defence Secretary, and how many of those visits were on official Government business?

I have been there twice; I am not sure whether it was three times. One of those visits was on official Government business, when I met a number of politicians. I also took the opportunity to deliver a lecture on behalf of my friend Mrs Kadirgamar—widow of the late Lakshman Kadirgamar, who was a Tamil Foreign Minister—in which I set out what I thought was a vision that should cut across Sri Lankan politics. I believe there is a widespread view in the House that Sri Lanka needs reconciliation and an understanding of what happened at the end of the war, and that there must be transparency about who was responsible so that the country can move on to a proper process of reconciliation.

May I return my right hon. Friend to the subject of his current responsibilities? Given that Afghanistan is in south Asia, can he tell us whether he agrees or disagrees with General McChrystal’s assessment of how we are doing in that country?

General McChrystal’s assessment was, in my view, a touch pessimistic; I think we have come a long way. He was referring to the period from 2001 onwards, and we did not make sufficient progress for a large proportion of that time. However, I would argue that since 2006, and particularly since the American surge, we have had the correct force densities to achieve what we wanted. We are now increasingly able to hold the military territory and are increasingly tactically successful, but there must be greater progress in the political and economic spaces.