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Britain will honour its 1984 pledge to "mobilise the international community and pursue every legal and other avenue available" if China breaches the agreement vowing "one country, two systems" for Hong Kong.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg was quoted as telling ex-chief Secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang and Democratic Party founding chairman Martin Lee Chu-ming this during their current visit to the UK.
A press release issued yesterday by Chan's think tank Hong Kong 2020 said Clegg had told the pair he was aware of the anxiety caused by Beijing's white paper on Hong Kong last month.
Watch: Anson Chan slams Britain's latest report on Hong Kong in UK Parliament
The meeting drew a strong rebuke from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing, with China issuing a complaint to Britain. "The Chinese side urges the British side to truly respect China's position and concern [and] ... immediately stop its interference in Hong Kong's affairs," spokesman Hong Lei said.
The white paper, which emphasised Beijing's "comprehensive jurisdiction" over Hong Kong, was viewed by critics as going against the promise of a high degree of autonomy in the Sino-British Joint Declaration.
Clegg told Chan and Lee that Prime Minister David Cameron had stressed Britain's commitment to the agreement in Beijing in December and when Premier Li Keqiang visited London last month.
At the time, Lee called Cameron "very irresponsible" for not publicly speaking up for Hong Kong during Li's visit.
"Clegg affirmed that … if China breached the 1984 treaty it signed with Britain on the handover of Hong Kong, Britain would mobilise the international community and pursue every legal and other avenue available," the press release said.
But City University political scientist Joseph Cheng Yu-shek said there was "very little that London can do through international legal channels", because dispute resolution was not mentioned in the 1984 declaration.
Chan and Lee also told the British Parliament's foreign affairs committee yesterday of concerns that Britain's latest report on Hong Kong did not express a view on the white paper.
Chairman Richard Ottaway promised the committee would decide whether the report was "accurate or missing out something".