Chinese ambassador warns UK not to cross ‘red lines’ over Taiwan

<span>Photograph: Jason Lee/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Jason Lee/Reuters

China’s ambassador to the UK has said Britain would face “serious consequences” if it crossed the “red lines” over Taiwan and warned against following in the footsteps of the US.

In a Guardian opinion piece that comes days after Liz Truss said China’s actions “threaten peace and stability in the region”, Zheng Zeguang wrote that Taiwan had become a “touchstone” for bilateral relations that he warned were “at an important juncture”.

“The Taiwan question is a major issue of principle. There is no reason for the UK to disregard that fact and follow in the footsteps of the US. Calls to ‘help Taiwan defend itself’ and the like are extremely irresponsible and detrimental.”

He added: “The Chinese people will firmly safeguard, at any cost, their national sovereignty and territorial integrity. ‘Taiwan independence’ means war and will lead to a dead end.”

The Chinese government insists Taiwan is a province of China and has not ruled out taking it by force if necessary. The island’s democratically elected president, Tsai Ing-wen, has said Taiwan is already a sovereign country with no need to declare independence.

Zheng’s comments came as Beijing staged a fresh round of military drills on Monday, in response to a brief visit by a group of bipartisan US lawmakers to Taiwan earlier in the week. Their visit – led by Massachusetts senator Ed Markey – took place less than two weeks after the visit by the US House of Representatives speaker, Nancy Pelosi, that prompted China to conduct days of unprecedented live-fire exercises.

The veteran Chinese diplomat defended his government’s action, which drew condemnation from the UK. Zheng argued that it was “only natural that China takes necessary measures in response”. He accused the US and “‘Taiwan independence’ separatist forces” of being the “perpetrators”, and said they “must bear full responsibility for their wrongdoings”.

Calls to support Taiwan have been on the rise in recent years as China’s relations with western democracies deteriorate. Last week Truss said China’s actions “threaten peace and stability in the region”. She also instructed her senior officials to summon Zheng to explain Beijing’s actions.

The foreign secretary and Conservative leadership hopeful said the UK and partners had condemned “in the strongest terms China’s escalation in the region around Taiwan, as seen through our recent G7 statement”. She also urged Beijing to resolve any differences “by peaceful means”.

Related: British MPs plan visit to Taiwan as tension with China simmers

In the meantime, a group of senior parliamentarians from the Commons foreign affairs committee have been preparing for a visit to Taipei later this year, which Zheng has vehemently opposed.

“The Taiwan issue has always been a sensitive issue at the centre of China-UK relations,” Zheng wrote in the Guardian opinion piece, reminding London of the Sino-UK joint communique signed in 1972, when the two countries began to exchange ambassadors. The UK has its own version of “one-China policy”, which means that it does not have full diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

“This history must never be forgotten and pledges should be honoured,” Zheng urged, adding that Beijing’s “one-China principle” is the “political foundation for the development of relations between China and all countries in the world”.

China and the UK began exchanging ambassadors in 1972, following the singing of a bilateral agreement. London also closed down its consulate in Taipei that same year. According to the agreement, the British government then “acknowledged the position of the government of the PRC [People’s Republic of China] that Taiwan was a province of China and recognised the PRC government as the sole legal government of China”.

The UK said, according to a Foreign Office memorandum, this position remains “the basis” of London’s relationship with Taipei. “We do not deal with the Taiwan authorities on a government-to-government basis, and we avoid any act which could be taken to imply recognition,” it said.

On 14 July 2020, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon said on behalf of the British government that the UK’s policy on Taiwan “has not changed”. This means that the UK does not have diplomatic relations with Taiwan, “but a strong unofficial relationship based on dynamic commercial, educational and cultural ties”, he said.