Why was Britain willing to return Hong Kong to China, but not Gibraltar to Spain? Was it because Gibraltar has more strategic value than Hong Kong?


8 Answers 8


Despite common misconception, both Hong Kong Island and the Kowloon Peninsula were ceded to the United Kingdom in perpetuity, via the Treaty of Nanking and the Convention of Peking, respectively. London was under no legal obligation to return them to China. However, most of the Crown Colony of Hong Kong actually consists of the New Territories. That was indeed a 99-year lease granted by the Convention for the Extension of Hong Kong Territory of 1898.

By the time lease was coming up in the late 20th century, the three regions of Hong Kong were so integrated in their development that separation was impractical. Telecommunications, transportation links, utilities were all interlinked, and an artificial separation would have brought economic chaos. Meanwhile, China made it clear that it wished to resume sovereignty over the entirety of Hong Kong - both leased Chinese territory and British supposedly sovereign possessions. And that it was quite capable of doing so by force.

Britain was not exactly willing to return Hong Kong. London did, however, understand the changed realities on the ground. The British Empire had faded into history, the Royal Navy no longer mistress of the seas. Nor was Communist China still the crumbling sick man of Asia under Manchurian rule or Maoist mismanagement. If push came to shove, Britain could not hope to defend Hong Kong any better than the Portuguese at Goa.

Thus, Britain had no realistic choice but to agree to return Hong Kong in 1984 after two years of negotiations. Rather than face the humiliation of a forcible Chinese takeover, it negotiated a relatively face-saving graceful exit that pretends attempts to safeguard some rights for Hong Kong residents.

Gibraltar was ceded to Britain in perpetuity by the Treaty of Utrecht. With over three hundred years of history under her belt, the United Kingdom is under no legal obligation to return any part of it. A key difference with the Hong Kong cessions is that neither Spain nor Britain wish to fight a war over Gibraltar. From a realpolitik perspective, compared to Hong Kong, Gibraltar is far more defensible, and Spain considerably less formidable.

Moreover, the British position is particularly strengthened by popular mandate, which are slightly more influential in western liberal democracies than jingoistic pseudo-communist dictatorships.

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    The story is that Margaret Thatcher was walked down Boundary Street and asked how it might be defended as a new frontier against the biggest country in the world.
    – Henry
    Commented Dec 22, 2014 at 9:03
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    @Chris Well, yes. China did make plans to invade and issued threats to that effect, which I consider critical. Keeping HK would have been costly but it wasn't really impossible per se (by the 1980s, HK was already moving food production into the mainland). It's more that even if Britain rebuilds HK without the leased zones, China could just roll the tanks in and render all efforts futile. It's less embarrassing to attribute the withdrawal to economics than admit HM Armed Forces could no longer defend British sovereign soil.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Dec 22, 2014 at 11:49
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    Does Nato cover overseas territories, and would the other Nato members been legally required to support Britain in the defense of Hong Kong in the event of a Chinese invasion?
    – vsz
    Commented Dec 22, 2014 at 17:56
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    @vsz Nope, the NATO treaty has a clause that limits common defence to attacks "in Europe or North America" (Article 5).
    – Semaphore
    Commented Dec 22, 2014 at 17:58
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    @smci Actually they do; NATO defined Article 5 to include the territory of Turkey (and Algeria and islands in the North Atlantic etc... it's a mouthful so no one ever quotes it) in the event that Turkey signs up, which they did.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Dec 23, 2014 at 3:56

I find it interesting that many answers belong to "armchair generals", that point only to the military power, and logistics,¹ but forget to mention the issues that could lead to a war in the first place. Remember, war is the continuation of politics....

  • First of all, I would point the main issue would be noticing how these issues affect the internal politics of every country.

    • To China, Western colonies in its former territories are a bitter reminder of the humiliations and invasions suffered at the hands of the Western powers first, and the Japanese later. It is a rallying point.

    • To Spain, Gibraltar is mostly just that, another neighbour. Apart from some hard-liners, there is no real interest in a conflict to get it. Most of the issues between Gibraltar and Spain are the regular issues of having a neighbour (Gibraltar vessels attacking Spanish fishing vessels, Gibraltar being used for smuggling drugs and cigarettes, Gibraltar as a fiscal paradise²).

    Of course, the official line is that Gibraltar is Spanish and should be returned, but nobody really acts on it. Also, a hard-liner stance against "colonies" would have the issue of compromising the position of Spain in Ceuta and Melilla, Gibraltar-like cities in Morocco.

  • Second: the value

    • Hong Kong is an international financial hub, site of many important companies and an important source of GDP.

    • Gibraltar is a rock with a town of some thousands people, with no real industry . It may have had some strategical importance in defending the UK possessions in the Mediterranean and the route to India, but now India and the UK possessions are long gone. Real value: that of the land, and thanks.

  • The relationships:

    • Spain is part of EU and depends of it for most of its trade, a war of conquest would be unthinkable. Even if it was a "military ride", the diplomatic and economic fallout of a possible expulsion from the EU (not to mention the loss of British tourism income) would make it unprofitable even to win a war to conquer Gibraltar.

    • On the other hand, China's diplomacy and economic relationships are way more varied. Facing economic reactions from the UK and EU would be hard, but not that crippling. And they have a lot of economic influence they can leverage.

So, we have:

  • A country that sees recovering Hong Kong as a matter of national pride, which has the potential to win a big economic hub and industrial port and that risks losing only a portion of its trade as a result.

  • A country that has no real issues with Gibraltar being British, which in case of conflict could win just a small town and some beaches and that by doing so would severely hurt relationships with its closest allies and partners....

I mean, there is no need to count the tanks and aircraft to see why the UK would not be as pressured by Spain as by the Chinese. The comparison is just moot.

¹ Not to mention stupid remarks like "We are gonna nuke Spain because we have big booombs".

² Not taking a stance here about how much truth is with these issues, just pointing out that none of the hot issues are related to sovereignty.

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    About "Gibraltar is mostly just that, another neighbour", it is not for Spanish nationalism - including that of largest political parties in Spain. There is an elaborate discourse about the legal and historical reasons for both Gibraltar and Ceuta and Melilla to be Spanish. Of course, this discourse overlooks the opinion of citizens of Gibraltar, but Spain usually tries hard to overlook self-determination rights, not just for Gibraltar.
    – Pere
    Commented Oct 12, 2017 at 9:51
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    @Pere I did mention some hard-liners, and some people pay lip service to the idea of Gibraltar belonging to Spain (the herds always like to hear that "the other" is "violating our rights" to distract from the actual problems); but from a practical POV there are no actual, serious attempts at changing the status quo. BTW, maybe you do not understand what "self-determination rights" actually mean: politics.stackexchange.com/questions/11507/…
    – SJuan76
    Commented Oct 12, 2017 at 10:22

Gibraltar was defensible, but Hong Kong was not. In the 1990s, the distance from the UK would have made Hong Hong impossible to defend. Also, Hong Kong is primarily occupied by Chinese, unlike Gibraltar, which is occupied by UK citizens, many of whom are soldiers. Gibraltar is a fortress, and it is relatively close to the UK and hence easily suppliable.

Spain is much weaker than the UK militarily. It has less population and the UK has almost double the GDP of Spain. The armed forces of the UK are far more numerous and advanced than those of Spain. The UK has nuclear weapons; Spain does not. The Royal navy is much, much more powerful than Spain's navy. Most of Spain's ships are just coast guard vessels. Just one of the submarines in the Royal Navy could sink every ship in the Spanish fleet.

The Spanish, in alliance with the French, once tried to seize Gibraltar in 1782 while the UK was busy fighting the American rebellion. This attack failed completely. By 1985, China, on the other hand, was more than strong enough to storm Hong Kong and have a near certainty of success. In fact, even in the 1950s, at the time of the Korean War, it would have been difficult for the UK to have held Hong Kong, if China had attacked.

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    Love the idea that nuclear weapons would come into a "should we invade?" cost-benefit analysis. Half of Britain goes to Spain for their holidays :) Commented Dec 22, 2014 at 16:49
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    Mushroom clouds over Madrid... bombs over Barcelona... submarines off Sevilla...
    – smci
    Commented Dec 22, 2014 at 18:09
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    Also @Fetchezlavache, they'd annex PortAventura and rename it Alton Towers del Sud. And it would serve chips. Imperialists.
    – smci
    Commented Dec 22, 2014 at 18:13
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    The UK's policy on the use if its nuclear weapons is clear: "We are now able to give an assurance that the UK will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states parties to the NPT that are compliant with the NPT." That rules out nuking Spain, even if you ignore the massive disproportionality of killing millions of civilians because somebody invaded a territory of 2.6 square miles and 30,000 people. Commented Dec 24, 2014 at 12:35
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    @DavidRicherby, I agree Britain is not going to nuke Spain (or even go to war with them) anytime soon. But it's questionable whether those policies would mean anything if push came to shove. Commented Dec 25, 2014 at 0:41

One other aspect to this discussion is water. Once the UK had returned the leased territories (as they would have had to do), all China needed to do was turn off the tap supplying water to the rest of HK. (Where do you think it came from?) It is unlikely that the rest of HK would have lasted more than a few days - no tanks (yes, I did see the pun) needed.

Gibraltar, with a smaller population, could easily be supplied with water. There are large reservoirs inside the rock for this reason.

For an historical reference, consider Singapore in 1942. Once the Japanese controlled the water reservoirs on the Malaysian peninsular, its fall was inevitable.


In addition to realpolitik and defensive considerations mentioned above, here are two more reasons:

  1. Gibraltar has been under British rule for significantly longer than Hong Kong was, both in absolute terms and (more significantly) in relative terms. Hong Kong was British for 100-150 years and Chinese for 2000, while Gibraltar has now been British for 310 years, Spanish for 242 and Muslim for 727. Combined with its relative closeness to the mainland and the its 'European' nature, this makes it appear less 'colonial' from the British (if not Spanish) perspective.

  2. Due to migration from Britain, Italy and North Africa, the population of Gibraltar is ethnically far more separate from that of Spain than the population of Hong Kong ever was from that of China. Indeed, Hong Kong saw significant migration from China during the British presence (and 94% of the population is ethnically Chinese), while Spanish migration and interactions in Gibraltar largely stopped under Franco (meaning that even the 26% of Gibraltarians with Spanish surnames often don't identify as such). Again, this makes Hong Kong more obviously 'colonial' from a British perspective.


In 1984, Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping negotiated the British handover of Hong Kong to China 15 years later. Recently released archival documents suggest that one of Thatcher’s prime concerns was to further British business interests in China.

From a recent news report:

Around six weeks before her trip, the British embassy in Beijing wrote to the Foreign Office urging that Thatcher should ‘press for greater export and investment opportunities for British industry under the signboard of greater participation in China's modernisation.’

It added: ‘It will be important however to handle this in public in such a way that Hong Kong opinion does not see our moves to develop trade as exploitation of the Hong Kong agreement.’

In a nod to this concern, officials decided that Thatcher should not travel with a party of British businessmen to avoid suggestions ‘that we were now getting our prize for having sold out Hong Kong to the Chinese,’ Peter Ricketts, a senior Foreign Office civil servant, wrote to Thatcher advisor Charles Powell on November 16, 1984.

During the trip, business deals including around the development of a nuclear power station in Guangdong were discussed, the files reveal.

AFP: Britain eyed China trade

  • I am certain that this was a major consideration for Thatcher. The article trails off rather a bit, though. It's forty years later: what did happen to the nuclear power station and British trade with China over the time until the handover?
    – lly
    Commented Mar 5, 2020 at 5:22

Another viewpoint, different from the other answers of "Britain could defend Gibraltar but not Hong Kong" is, who would we return it to?

Hong Kong was / is by and large made up a Chinese or cultural Chinese populace, with no real ties / history to the UK.

Gibraltarians on the other hand, whether the Spanish agree or not, see themselves as British, not Spanish. The culture is predominantly a British culture, they speak English, it's been under British rule / protection / association for 300+ years.

"Returning" it to Spain is like saying we'll return Cumbria to Scotland.

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    The answer to this (rhetorical?) question is quite obvious: Gibraltar would be handed over to Spain (incidentally, “handover” rather than “return” is the term used for Hong Kong as well). Very much like Hong Kong was by China, it's geographically connected by and claimed by that country. Of course the current population would not be happy but they could easily be accommodated within Spain current system and/or be evacuated (all this has happened before).
    – Relaxed
    Commented Dec 24, 2014 at 10:37
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    There is something oddly essentialist in the assumption that Chinese-speaking Hong Kong residents must have welcomed PRC rule. They weren't asked (in fact Britain even made sure they could not all freely leave the territory to go the UK), which underlies the fact that the main difference really was that Hong Kong was not viable without the New Territories. In both cases, the claim is based on geography and history, not the population's wishes.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Dec 24, 2014 at 10:37
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    Transferring Gibraltar to Spain would be nothing even remotely like transferring Cumbria to Scotland. Not least because Cumbria and Scotland are both parts of the same country. Commented Dec 24, 2014 at 12:38
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    It's just an analogy. Scotland and England are not the same country. Cumberland used to be part of Scotland, so I wouldn't say its "nothing even remotely like". Bad comment really.
    – sksamuel
    Commented Dec 24, 2014 at 12:48
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    This must be a joke or just a "gut reaction" answer... while Gibraltarians may have some cultural traits that distinguish them from Spanish, both share the same Western tradition. If there were some "substantial differences" that would forbid the handover of Gibraltar to Spain, the same "substantial differences" would forbid Scotland or Wales being part of the UK.
    – SJuan76
    Commented Dec 24, 2014 at 16:43

Gibraltar is much closer to home, and much more important to Britain than Hong Kong. Gibraltar is literally the gateway to the Mediterranean, all of southern Europe, and large parts of Africa and the Middle East. Hong Kong has nowhere a comparable level of strategic significance, at least to Britain, because it is halfway around the world.

Gibraltar is also much easier to defend. Besides shorter lines of communications, Britain is much stronger than Spain (similar populations, but Britain is much better armed) and much weaker than China (which has a much greater population, and is similarly armed).

  • With the loss of Malta, Suez, India, &c and with the vast international importance of manufacturing and shipping from the Pearl River and its own economy, Hong Kong would have a vastly superior level of strategic importance to present-day Brits. During the Cold War or in some similar future scenario, the US might prefer Gibraltar to contain the Russian Black Sea fleet but the UK couldn't do anything similar on its own and the chance of Russia actually being a global strategic threat is (best case) decades and decades down the road.
    – lly
    Commented Mar 5, 2020 at 5:33

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