WASHINGTON—China and the United States could end up in a military conflict if the United States encourages Taiwan's independence, Beijing's ambassador to Washington said in a US radio interview broadcast on Friday.
China considers the neighboring, democratically ruled island of Taiwan its "sacred" territory and has never renounced the use of force to ensure eventual unification.
"Let me emphasize this. The Taiwan issue is the biggest tinder-box between China and the United States," Qin Gang told National Public Radio.
"If the Taiwanese authorities, emboldened by the United States, keep going down the road for independence, it most likely (will) involve China and the United States, the two big countries, in a military conflict."
Asked to comment, the US Defense Department said the United States remained committed to its "one China" policy and its commitments under the US Taiwan Relations Act.
Under the long-standing policy, Washington officially recognizes Beijing rather than Taipei, while the act requires the United States to provide Taiwan with the means to defend itself.
"We will continue to assist Taiwan in maintaining a sufficient self-defense capability while also maintaining our own capacity to resist any use of force that would jeopardize the security of the people of Taiwan," a Pentagon spokesperson said.
The US State Department and White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Qin's remark, which came just hours after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi discussed the crisis over Ukraine.
While Chinese officials have warned of military action over Taiwan, it is unusual for them to link it directly to the United States.
Tensions between Beijing and Taipei have escalated in recent months as China's military has conducted repeated air missions over the Taiwan Strait, the waterway separating the island from China.
US President Joe Biden has said that the United States was not encouraging independence for Taiwan, but he caused a stir in October when he said it would come to the island's defense if China attacked.
The latter remark appeared to depart from Washington's long-held policy of "strategic ambiguity" — not making clear how the United States would respond — though the White House quickly said Biden was not signaling a change in policy.
The chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, told Congress last year China wanted the ability to invade and hold Taiwan within the next 6 years but might not intend to do so in the near term. (Reporting by Michael Martina and David Brunnstrom; Editing by Howard Goller and Nick Macfie)