China and the United States could end up in a military conflict if the U.S encourages Taiwan’s independence, Beijing’s ambassador to Washington, Qin Gang, has said in a U.S radio interview broadcast.

China considers the neighbouring, democratically ruled island of Taiwan its “sacred” territory and has never renounced the use of force to ensure eventual unification.

“Let me emphasise this. The Taiwan issue is the biggest tinder-box between China and the United States,” Qin 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 U.S Defense Department said the United States remained committed to its “one China” policy and its commitments under the U.S Taiwan Relations Act.

Under the long-standing policy, Washington officially recognises 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-defence capability while also maintaining our own capacity to resist any use of force that would jeopardise the security of the people of Taiwan,” a Pentagon spokesperson said.

The U.S State Department and White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Qin’s remark, which came just hours after U.S 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.

U.S President Joe Biden has said that his country was not encouraging independence for Taiwan, but he caused a stir in October when he said it would come to the island’s defence if China attacked.

The latter remark appeared to depart from Washington’s long-held policy of “strategic ambiguity” — not making clear how the U.S would respond — although the White House quickly said Mr Biden was not signalling a change in policy.

U.S Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman General Mark Milley told Congress last year that China wants the ability to invade and hold Taiwan within the next six years but might not intend to do so in the near term.