When the British Tried Selling Harrier to China in 1970s

Atul Bhardwaj, Adjunct Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies.

Last week, the Indian Navy bid adieu to the British-built Sea Harrier. The lone Subsonic-Sea Harrier flew among the newly inducted supersonic fighters, MiG 29k to mark the ceremony at Goa. The 1970s vintage machine was de-inducted from the Royal Navy in the year 2006 after serving for good twenty-six years. The Indian Navy had refurbished the aircraft, in 2009, to add another few years to its life. For almost three decades the Harriers were a pride of the Indian Navy flying from aircraft carriers.

Harrier was a short/vertical take-off and landing jet fighter, reconnaissance and strike aircraft designed and manufactured by British Aerospace. Its ability to hover like a helicopter was its unique feature.

Harriers operated successfully from the aircraft carriers, HMS Invincible and HMS Hermes in the Falkland War of 1982. A good war-performance enhanced their marketability in global arms market. India was impressed with the British innovation in the fighter domain. India ordered 30 aircraft and along with HMS Hermes, which was later rechristened as INS Viraat. The first three Sea Harriers landed at Goa on December 16, 1983, the deck landing abilities were tested on India’s first aircraft carrier INS Vikrant on December 20, 1983.

Interestingly, when the British Aerospace was busy negotiating with India the price of the naval version of the aircraft, it was simultaneously engaged in selling the Airforce-version of the Harriers to the Chinese. In fact, the Chinese started talking about sale-purchase of 200 Harriers, as early as 1972. In 1964, the Chinese bought Six Viscount aircraft for civilian use and thirty-six Trident jets firm Great Britain.

The “Gang of Four” menace in China put the Harrier negotiations on hold. In 1977 Li Chiang, then Chinese Minister of Foreign Trade visited Britain. The British organised a special Harrier flying demonstration for Li. In November 1978, the Harrier-demonstration was repeated for the Chinese Vice-Premier Wang Chen during his London visit.

The British were more than willing to sell to the Chinese despite the United States Battle Act of 1951 that prohibited such sales to the Soviet Bloc countries.  Earlier Britain had overlooked the American concerns and sold Rolls Royce Spey engine to China in 1975. The sale of engine was for military purpose. Not only were the Americans advising Britain to refrain from selling jump-jets to the Chinese the Soviets too were opposed to the West arming the Chinese.  Brezhnev wrote to British Prime Minister asking him to back off from negotiation harrier deal with the Chinese.  Brezhnev’s letter was leaked to the press to show that the Soviets were trying to influence British decision.

Perhaps, due many of these factors the Chinese slowed down the speed of negotiations. In the midst of uncertainty, Wang’s elevation into the Politburo of CCP gave British fresh hopes of selling Harrier to China. The British sales-pitch to the Chinese was that Harrier could be effective in close-support operations and was a fit aircraft in defensive role. In 1979, the Anglo-Sino deal was almost through, the agreement was drawn, but the process got stalled by the Chinese invasion of Vietnam. And the deal died its natural death.

Interestingly, to keep the Americans in good humour, the London told Washington that it did not foresee the Chinese using the Harriers against Taiwan. Now the US Marine Corps is trying to sell the refurbished AV-8 Harriers to Taiwan. The justification is that in the event of a Chinese missile-attack the Taiwanese airfields will be the first to be destroyed and in such an eventuality the Harriers – capable of vertical take-off and landing- hidden in the mountains will come in handy to launch counter attacks. In 1980s China rejected the Harriers, now it is Taiwan that seems to be in no mood to oblige USA.

 

References

  1. David Crane, “The Harrier Jump-Jet and Sino-British Relations,” Asian Affairs Vol. 8, No. 4 (Mar. – Apr., 1981), pp. 227-250
  1. Edward Harvey, “The Modernisation of China and the Harrier ‘Jump-Jet’: Sino-British relations during China’s ‘opening-up’ to the World.” Available at https://independentresearcher.academia.edu/EdwardHarvey
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