Apparently during the negotiations that led to the Sino-British Joint Declaration, the British were hamstrung because they were in a much-weaker position militarily, and Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping threatened to seize Hong Kong by force if negotiations failed.

Given that the UK is completely capable of using nuclear weapons against China, why should this threat have any effect? It's true that because China was (is) also a nuclear-armed state, using nuclear weapons would likely lead to mutually assured destruction. Still, stopping this kind of threat seems like the whole point of having a nuclear deterrent in the first place.

Edit: to clarify, this isn't about using the threat of nuclear force to hold on to Hong Kong. It'd be to respond to Deng Xiaoping's thread and get a better negotiated deal.

  • I don't think that British citizens would support nuclear war for a single city on the other side of the planet. Also, in such situation 5th point of NATO declaration won't be in effect - because it would be an offence. Even US denied to nuke China, what is the point to talk about Britain? – user2501323 Dec 18 '19 at 7:39
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    I don't understand the question. You cannot use a nuclear deterrent for negotiating the status of a terrority such as Hongkong. You can of course threaten the other side with your nuclear weapons, but then they aren't a deterrent any more, they are a means of aggression. So, are you asking: "Why didn't Thatcher use nuclear weapons as a means of aggression?" ? – Christian Geiselmann Dec 18 '19 at 14:12
  • Why would she threaten a nuclear power with nukes for merely suggesting they might take a UK territory by force, when she didn't threaten a non-nuclear power with nukes for actually doing that? – F1Krazy Dec 18 '19 at 17:44
  • @ChristianGeiselmann I don't understand your objection either. Deterrents are precisely for deterring the other side from threatening you, and Deng Xiaoping has already threatened force. – Allure Dec 18 '19 at 20:27
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    @Allure You are right, I misread your question. You spoke about China threatening, and UK deterring. My mistake. – Christian Geiselmann Dec 20 '19 at 20:46

By the 1980s China had land-based ICBMs, such as the DF-5 capable of reaching London. So threatening China with nuclear weapons would not have been productive for the UK unless the US had been willing to partake in the threat with its own massive arsenal.

The UK did consider convincing the US to use nuclear weapons against China some decades prior, and in relation to defending Hong Kong, even against a conventional Chinese attack, which even then was considered indefensible. Alas, the US was rather unreceptive:

In 1961 the UK felt nuclear retaliation was the only alternative to abandoning its colony if China attacked.

Officials wanted "to encourage" China to believe nuclear action against it would follow any hostile action, papers released by the National Archives show.

Britain handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997 having held it since 1842. The letters, circulated to prime minister Harold Macmillan, were written between 1957 and 1961 when concern was growing about China's intentions.

Hong Kong was thought to be vulnerable, particularly as water and food supplies, from the mainland, could be cut off at any time.

The letters do not say who initially suggested the nuclear option, but they do show that British officials were keen for the Chinese to be aware of the threat while not giving the impression that Hong Kong was an American military outpost.

Defence minister Harold Watkinson wrote to the foreign secretary and prime minister, saying: "Our object is to encourage the Chinese to believe than an attack on Hong Kong would involve US nuclear retaliation."

Foreign Secretary Sir Alec Douglas-Home wrote a "top secret" letter to Mr Watkinson and Mr Macmillan in February 1961.

He wrote: "It must be fully obvious to the Americans that Hong Kong is indefensible by conventional means and that in the event of a Chinese attack, nuclear strikes against China would be the only alternative to complete abandonment of the colony.

"In these circumstances it is perhaps not so much formal staff talks with the Americans that we need so much as an informal exchange of views involving a discussion of the use of nuclear strikes.

"I need hardly say, however, that I agree entirely with your view that while we should encourage the Chinese to believe that an attack on Hong Kong would involve nuclear retaliation, we must avoid anything that would allow the Chinese to claim that the Colony is a military outpost of the United States."

Secret meetings between British and American officials were held in Hawaii with the possibility of further meetings on board a US naval carrier during its frequent visits to Hong Kong.

However, the idea stalled after Admiral Harry Felt, the commander of the US Pacific Fleet, responded cautiously when it was put to him.

Any further response from the US at the time was not included in the National Archives file.

For more see https://www.jstor.org/stable/40111055

In 1958, the garrison consisted of eight units, two of them on temporary assignment, which 'could not defend the colony against open aggression for the 48 hours or more needed before any American nuclear weapons could be brought to bear', given 'the delay inherent in obtaining political approval' for the use of nuclear weapons from the president. But as the Eisenhower administration had never committed the United States to the defence of Hong Kong, the decision for 'massive nuclear retaliation' against Chinese aggression would depend on the political circumstances. In reality, Hong Kong remained indefensible [...]

the British, owing to their recognition by 1961 of Hong Kong's indefensibility, no longer sought US help. The termination of the Hong Kong Working Group convinced the Kennedy administration that the United Kingdom did not expect the United States to play a direct role in Hong Kong's defence. This assessment also governed the Lyndon B.Johnson administration's response in 1967, when riots threatened Hong Kong's survival as a crown colony.

Also, by the 1970, during the Nixon administration, the US had started a rapprochement with China, which meant that a maverik UK position on Hong Kong was even less likely to get American support...

  • See my comment beneath my answer above, re the Singapore base. Britain certainly had nuclear weapons at Tengah Airbase in Singapore, which were there as an express deterrent against China. Kennedy who saw trouble coming in Indo-China, persuaded Macmillan to keep the far-eastern fleet in place. It was left to Harold Wilson, in the late sixties to plan for its closure. Considered by many a sad moment, the headline in the London Evening Standard ran "Goodbye Gunga Din". – WS2 Dec 18 '19 at 17:11
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    It was always believed that Hong Kong represented such an important "shop-window" for China's exports that even during the cultural revolution no attempt was made to retake it. Besides there would have been the added problem of having to absorb 6 million political recalcitrants into the communist system. How would they do that? They didn't know then and they still don't know now. – WS2 Dec 18 '19 at 17:16
  • Any idea why Britain wanted to make China to believe that attacking Hong Kong would result in US nuclear retaliation? Why not their own nuclear weapons? – Allure Dec 18 '19 at 23:43

Suffice it to say that an aggressive posture would not have been compatible with the overall western approach to an industrially and commercially emerging China.

Moreover Britain had no case in law, since the lease was expiring.

Finally the body of popular opinion inside Hong Kong itself was for an eventual accommodation with China.

And finally, finally, there is no way that a country representing 1% of the world's population, goes threatening nuclear war upon one representing 25% of the world's population, unless the risks to its own survival have been made especially dire!

  • Two more points. The economic viability of Hong Kong would have been questionable without Chinese trade. And the negotiations about Hong Kong started at a date where the UK nuclear deterrent was needed more urgently in Europe. Sending one or two of their missile subs around the world and expending those missiles would have weakened their position vs. the USSR. – o.m. Dec 18 '19 at 8:25
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    The expiring lease only concerned the New Territories; Hong Kong Island and Kowloon Peninsula had both been ceded in perpetuity before the New Territories were leased. – Jan Dec 18 '19 at 9:05
  • @o.m Prior to 1975 Britain's Pacific fleet, based in Singapore was nuclear armed. It consisted of 2 aircraft carriers, 80 other warships, 63,000 resident service personnel, and 20 RAF squadrons. Though it was an economic millstone for Britain, we yielded to US pressure to keep the far-eastern base open, during the currency of the Vietnam war as protection for Asia's SE flank, should the domino theory go into effect. But by the 1990s Britain had retreated from an east-of-Suez policy, and had no ambition to reopen it. – WS2 Dec 18 '19 at 16:48

UK had no legal basis for staying in Hong Kong, after its 99-year lease agreement with China has expired.


Staying in Hong Kong past the lease expiry date would've amounted to UK seizing Hong Kong from China and violating China's sovereignty. Which would've been an act of war in itself.

UK used to recognize the Taiwanese government as the legitimate government of all China. But this changed in 1950, when the UK government recognized the Communist government in Beijing. Which meant that they had to hand over Honk Kong to the Communist government, when the Hong Kong lease expired.


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    Only the New Territories were leased. Hong Kong Island and Kowloon Peninsula were ceded in perpetuity. – Jan Dec 18 '19 at 9:04
  • The reason why UK leased Hong Kong was because their Hong Kong island and Kowloon peninsula were militarily indefensible. UK acquired these territories through unjust Opium War against China. It was basically British drug dealers forcing China to import addictive opium. So, UK had a good reason to be afraid that China will take these territories back by force. UK temporarily resolved this situation with their 99-year lease. But at the end of it, UK wasn't an empire anymore. It didn't make sense for them to hang on to unjustly acquired and indefensible territories. – user29459 Dec 18 '19 at 9:14
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    I’m familiar with all that you said. Still it remains that the UK had a legal basis for staying on Hong Kong Island and in Kowloon Peninsula after the 99 year lease of the New Territories expired. Only the New Territories would have had to be handed back. – Jan Dec 18 '19 at 9:21
  • I should clarify, I meant asking why the UK didn't use the nuclear deterrent as a response to the Chinese threat to use force. I don't mean using the nuclear deterrent to hold on to Hong Kong. It could be for a better negotiated deal. – Allure Dec 18 '19 at 9:25
  • Staying on in small parts of the territory would've been pointless for UK. It's wasn't in UK's national interest do that. And given the fact that UK took these territories by force from China, China would've felt justified in taking them back by force too. If force is okay one way, the it's okay the other way too. At least that's how it works, if all countries are considered equal and there is no racist 'white privilege' or something like that. – user29459 Dec 18 '19 at 9:28

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