Jeremy Hunt has said there is “no reason” why Britain cannot continue to have good relations with China, despite an escalation of the dispute over Hong Kong.
The Foreign Secretary refused to outline what sanctions he could impose on China, after the country’s ambassador in London was summoned for a dressing down from the UK’s top diplomat.
The Foreign Office and Beijing have been involved in a spat following a call from Mr Hunt not to use the protests in Hong Kong as a “pretext for repression”.
China’s foreign ministry hit back and ambassador Liu Xiaoming lambasted the UK Government over its approach.
But Mr Hunt told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We have good relations with China… there’s no reason why that can’t continue.
“But, for us, it is very important that the ‘one country, two systems’ approach is honoured.”
Asked to spell out what the consequences might be, he said: “No foreign secretary would ever spell out precisely what would happen in a situation like that – you need what Bill Clinton called strategic ambiguity.
“The reason that you wouldn’t spell it out is because you don’t want to provoke the very situation you are trying to avoid.
“I’m not saying anything about what those consequences might be – that would not be the right thing for me to do as Foreign Secretary, because, of course, you keep your options open.
“But I am making the point that the United Kingdom views this situation very, very seriously.”
Geng Shuang, a spokesman for Beijing’s ministry of foreign affairs, said Mr Hunt “appeared to be “basking in the faded glory of British colonialism and obsessed with lecturing others”.
An FCO source said Mr Liu had been hauled in for a meeting on Wednesday with Foreign Office chief Sir Simon McDonald, the head of the diplomatic service, following the “unacceptable and inaccurate” comments from China’s ministry of foreign affairs.
After the ambassador was summoned, an FCO spokesman said: “The FCO’s Permanent Under Secretary Sir Simon McDonald told the Chinese ambassador that the comments made on UK policy towards Hong Kong by the Chinese ministry of foreign affairs spokesperson were unacceptable and inaccurate.
“The British Government’s position has been set out clearly by the Foreign Secretary and other ministers.”
The turmoil in Hong Kong has seen protesters storm parliament and raise the old British colonial flag in the legislative chamber on the 22nd anniversary of the territory’s return to Chinese rule on July 1.
Police used tear gas against anti-government activists.
The scenes follow unrest in the former colony over a controversial extradition law.
Mr Liu used a press conference to warn that Britain had damaged its relationship with China by interfering in Hong Kong following unrest in the region.
In a reference to Mr Hunt, he said it was “very disappointing” when senior officials “of his calibre” show support for “law-breaking” people.
He urged the Government to reflect on the “consequences of its words and deeds” regarding the former British colony.
He said: “I think the relationship in a way has been damaged by the interference of the British Government in Hong Kong because, as I said, the fundamental principles guiding our two countries is mutual respect, non-interference into internal affairs.
“If the British Government go further it will cause further damages, so that is why I’m calling the British Government to reflect the consequences of its words and deeds with regards to Hong Kong.”