Li Keqiang

Chinese premier Li Keqiang 'had Taiwan in mind' over UK unity remark

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 June, 2014, 10:22pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 June, 2014, 9:59am

When China's premier Li Keqiang said on Tuesday that he favoured the United Kingdom staying together, Chengxin Pan, a professor of international relations at Deakin University in Australia, said at first blush it sounded rather undiplomatic.

After all, Li was wading into a domestic matter of a foreign country, three months before Scots are set to vote on ending their 307-year union with England. Such a comment is pretty rare, given China's long-standing distaste for foreign interference. But there was no contradiction here, Chengxin said. Li was saying something about Scotland, but his thoughts were on domestic affairs and the mainland's relations with Taiwan.

His views thus have more to do with China's own situation with Taiwan than with the referendum on the status of Scotland
Professor Chengxin Pan

"His views thus have more to do with China's own situation with Taiwan than with the referendum on the status of Scotland. His wish for a strong and prosperous United Kingdom really reflects the Chinese government's concern that a similar referendum in Taiwan could result in the formal independence of the island," Pan said.

Steve Tsang, director of the China Policy Institute at Nottingham University, said Li's support for a united Britain was well received, but missed the point.

"Great Britain is not great because it is united and rich. It is a great country because of its openness and respect for individual rights and freedom, which includes allowing the residents of Scotland to determine their own future in an open and fair referendum," Tsang said.

Li responded after he was asked at a news conference during his first official trip to Britain what impact a Scottish split would have on the attractiveness of the UK as a foreign partner.

"We welcome a strong, prosperous and united United Kingdom," Li replied. "I believe the United Kingdom can stay at the forefront in leading the world's growth and development and also continue to play an important and even bigger role for regional stability and global peace."

Scots are due to vote on September 18, with opinion polls showing a majority will vote to remain part of the UK. But they also show that many people remain undecided.

Cameron's Conservative Party, their Liberal Democrat partners in government and the opposition Labour Party want Scotland to stay in the UK.

Li's comments were dismissed by the Yes Scotland campaign, which is backed by Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond's Scottish National Party.

"Unlike people in China, [the people of Scotland] will enjoy a free and democratic vote on September 18 when they will decide the future of their country," a spokesman said. "We believe that decision will be 'yes'."

Li's visit has signalled a thaw in Sino-British ties by detailing China's business ambitions in the UK. Beijing curtailed ties with Cameron's government in 2012 after he met the Dalai Lama.

Li and Cameron signed a 30-point UK-China communiqué, listing cooperation in areas ranging from investment and trade to health care and medicine. It also highlighted possible new inroads for China to participate in the construction of British nuclear power plants and other infrastructure, and for the yuan to trade more freely in London.

Tsang added that unlike China, England was not attempting to prevent the Scots from choosing their future in the United Kingdom. There have been no threats to send in the army should Scotland choose a future that does not meet with British government approval.

"This is the basis of the UK's greatness and much of its soft power," Tsang said. "It will be beneficial to the people of China to understand this for what it is, not to insist on the UK being united and prosperous - to be achieved by fiat."

Additional reporting by Reuters, Agence France-Presse