By Amanda Ferguson
BELFAST (Reuters) - Britain expects China to abide by a 1984 treaty which guarantees basic freedoms to the former British colony of Hong Kong for 50 years, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said on Tuesday.
In an interview with Reuters during a visit to Northern Ireland, Hunt also said he believed a way could be found to avoid a hard border in Ireland after Brexit.
China has called the violent protests in Hong Kong this week a challenge to its rule after demonstrators stormed the territory's legislature.
Millions have rallied against a bill which seeks to allow people in Hong Kong to be extradited to the mainland for trial in courts controlled by the Communist Party.
China and Britain signed a Joint Declaration in 1984 on the terms of the return of Hong Kong but Beijing has said the accord is a historical document with no practical significance.
Hunt said: "It is a legally binding document which has force for 50 years. Just as China expects other countries to follow their international legal obligations, the United Kingdom does the same."
Hong Kong was returned by Britain to China in 1997 under a "one country, two systems" formula that allows freedoms not enjoyed in mainland China, including the right to protest and an independent judiciary.
China said on Monday Britain no longer has any responsibility for Hong Kong and should stop "gesticulating" about it.
When asked if China could be sanctioned for events in Hong Kong, Hunt said:
"I hope it won't come up anything like that at all because there is a way through this which is for the government of Hong Kong to listen to the legitimate concerns of the people of Hong Kong about their freedoms."
Hong Kong is not the only current issue straining UK relations with China. Britain has found itself caught up in a diplomatic row between Washington and Beijing over the use of Chinese firm Huawei's equipment in its 5G telecoms network.
The United States has told its allies not to use Huawei equipment because of concerns it could allow China to spy on sensitive communications.
However, Britain's National Security Council, chaired by Prime Minister Theresa May, agreed in April to allow Huawei restricted access to non-core parts of the 5G network, but that decision has been put on hold following the U.S. intervention.
"We have to make sure we protect our intelligence-sharing relationship with the United States," said Hunt, one of two contenders to replace May and who was in Belfast for a hustings of Conservative members who will elect the country's next leader.
"We are going through an assessment of the technical and strategic risks but my starting point is that we should avoid technological dependency on any other countries for those critical networks."
BREXIT NO-DEAL CAN BE BLOCKED
The main issue for Hunt and his rival, former foreign minister Boris Johnson, remains Britain's exit from the European Union. Both men have said they would be prepared to leave without any agreement and Johnson has vowed that Brexit would occur before the current Oct. 31 deadline, “do or die”.
However, lawmakers have indicated they would not allow a no-deal Brexit and Hunt said parliament could block it.
"It has succeeded before and it may succeed again which is why the safest and quickest way of getting out of the European Union is to choose a prime minister who can negotiate a deal that can get through parliament," he said.
One of the main Brexit sticking points has been the Irish backstop, an insurance policy to prevent the return of a hard border between British-ruled Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.
Hunt said a technological answer could be found, even though Britain's official in charge of Brexit border preparation warned earlier this year there was no such solution in existence anywhere else in the world.
"What I would say is that there is nowhere anywhere in the world that is like the island of Ireland, with its very unique history and the resilience of its people and the way that it has overcome challenges in a way that frankly has been the envy of the world," Hunt said.
"So I think we can find a solution on the island of Ireland that may well blaze a trail around the world for how invisible borders can actually work."
(Writing by Guy Faulconbridge and Michael Holden; editing by Stephen Addison)