Exclusive:Revealed: China diplomat met Scottish Government minister before council scrapped Taiwan deal

The high-level meeting underlines tensions surrounding council plans

Scotland’s external affairs minister met earlier this month with a senior Chinese government official to discuss concerns about a major local authority’s controversial proposal to strike a friendship agreement with a Taiwanese city, The Scotsman can reveal.

Zhang Biao, the Chinese consul general in Edinburgh, requested and secured a meeting with Angus Robertson, the Cabinet secretary for constitution, external affairs and culture, as part of Beijing’s efforts to halt the plans by Edinburgh City Council.

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As revealed by The Scotsman on Monday, a full meeting of the local authority had been due to consider the planned ‘friendship arrangement’ with the Taiwanese port city of Kaohsiung this Thursday, only for the item to be pulled from the agenda.

Cammy Day, the council leader, who has forged close ties between his administration and Taiwan in recent years, said “more discussion is required” around the plans before taking them forward, but stressed that, in his view, developing such relationships was “absolutely the right thing to do”.

Representations were made with the local authority the arrangement would have been perceived by China as a formal deal with Taiwan, sparking a diplomatic backlash, including the prospect of Beijing blocking all visas for Chinese students at universities in Edinburgh and elsewhere in Scotland. China views self-ruled Taiwan as a breakaway province that will eventually come back under Beijing’s control.

Roddy Smith, chief executive of Essential Edinburgh, the company behind the city’s Business Improvement District, described it as “simply far too big a risk to take”, adding: “The impact on our city economy would run into millions of pounds and potentially adversely impact many businesses and institutions in the city and beyond.”

Now, in a move that will amplify concerns about China’s influence, it has emerged Mr Biao discussed the Kaohsiung deal less than a fortnight ago with Mr Robertson. While foreign affairs are reserved to the UK government, the Scottish Government, in keeping with the Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office’s (FCDO) position, acknowledges the position of the Chinese government that Taiwan is a province of the People’s Republic of China. Ministers consider the Taiwan issue one to be settled peacefully by the people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait through constructive dialogue, without the threat or use of force or coercion.

A meeting took place between a Scottish Government minister and a Chinese diplomat amid the row. Picture: PAA meeting took place between a Scottish Government minister and a Chinese diplomat amid the row. Picture: PA
A meeting took place between a Scottish Government minister and a Chinese diplomat amid the row. Picture: PA

A spokesman for the Scottish Government said: “The external affairs secretary met the Chinese Consul General on June 12 at the latter’s request. Mr Robertson reiterated that Scottish Government policy regarding Taiwan had not changed and any decision on the friendship agreement between the City of Edinburgh and the city of Kaohsiung would be for the council to make, given local authorities are independent of the Scottish Government, and this separation of decision making would be the case regardless of the topic or issue.

“The City of Edinburgh Council also approached the Scottish Government on June 14 to ask for any feedback or comments on a final draft of the paper that was to be considered by the council. Officials confirmed in their response that both the UK and Scottish governments affirm that this would be a decision to be made by the local authority and that this position had been communicated to the consulate.”

The FCDO has been approached for comment.

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