The First Minister said any choice would be made based on the country’s “best interests” but stated that she believed “one day” there would be another referendum.
Ms Sturgeon faced pressure to clarify the SNP’s position on a second referendum after her predecessor Alex Salmond said over the weekend that a second vote on leaving the UK is “inevitable”.
The SNP leader previously said the 2014 independence vote was a “once in a lifetime” event and has since stated that the prospect of a fresh poll was a matter for the Scottish people.
However, SNP chairman Derek Mackay, echoing Mr Salmond’s remarks, confirmed that independence will be on the agenda at the party’s annual policy-making conference in October.
Scottish Secretary David Mundell, the only Conservative MP north of the Border, called on Ms Sturgeon to state the “clarity of the SNP position” on whether a second referendum would be held if the party wins a third term in power at Holyrood next year.
Questioned during her official visit to China, Ms Sturgeon insisted the SNP had yet to decide whether a referendum would be in its 2016 manifesto.
She said: “There can’t be a referendum, and there certainly can’t be independence for Scotland, unless a majority of people in Scotland clearly want that.
“It will be my ultimate decision, in line with the democratic decision-making processes of the SNP, to determine whether or not there is a commitment to a second referendum in the SNP manifesto for the Scottish election. And in due course we will take that decision and take that decision based on what we consider to be in the best interests of the country.”
Mr Mackay reiterated Ms Sturgeon’s statement that a second referendum will take place if there is a material change in the political circumstances and Scotland votes for a party promising another referendum in its manifesto.
He said: “We will have a party conference and we will have a Scottish parliamentary election, and in that election we will have a manifesto that we believe will represent the people of Scotland, and that manifesto will then be presented to the people and they can choose.
“I can’t tell you what’s in the manifesto because it clearly hasn’t been written yet.”
In response to Mr Mundell’s call for clarity, he said: “I can give you that clarity – we are not planning for or preparing for a second referendum but we still believe in independence for Scotland.”
Opposition parties said many Scots would be concerned by Ms Sturgeon’s statement that a second referendum was her “ultimate” choice and suggested the First Minister was retreating from previous pledges that a decision on a fresh independence vote rested with the electorate.
Labour’s shadow Scottish secretary Ian Murray said: “People will rightly be worried that Nicola Sturgeon isn’t keeping the promise she made to Scots before the referendum.
“We’ve gone from the people will decide to the SNP will decide to Nicola Sturgeon will decide.”
Scottish Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser said: “We were assured that last September’s vote was “once in a generation vote”.
“Now all we hear from the SNP is about how soon they can justify a rerun.”