China has responded angrily to a UK promise to offer nearly 3 million residents of Hong Kong with British national overseas status (BNO), the right to settle in the UK.

China’s foreign ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, said Britain would “bear all consequences”, and China’s ambassador to the UK later said that Beijing “reserve[d] the right to take corresponding measures”.

No further details were given, leaving it unclear if any response would be aimed at the UK or at the BNO passport holders, and when it might come.

Some reaction is to be expected, however, given China’s increasingly aggressive international stance on issues from its border dispute with India to control of Hong Kong.

“Beijing has to respond robustly because not doing so would make Xi [Jinping, China’s president] look weak domestically, and that is not an option,” said Prof Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute.

The UK is the number one European destination for Chinese foreign investment, which in the past five years has equalled the sum in the previous 30 years. China is also the UK’s third largest market.

Trade has slumped in recent months but may rebound as the UK tries to restart growth decimated by its coronavirus lockdown. China could threaten to limit investment or put tariffs on British goods.

China could bring in exit bans on BNO passport holders leaving Hong Kong. These have been used to prevent both Chinese dissidents and foreigners including American citizens from leaving the mainland.

A ban would be complicated, given that travellers could claim to be heading abroad for tourism or business before settling in the UK.

But the UK foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, said if China did want to bar citizens from leaving “there would be little that we could do to coercively force them”, he told ITV in an interview.

China might also refuse to recognise the British citizenship acquired by any BNO residents who move to the UK. Chinese citizens cannot be dual nationals, and citizenship has to be formally renounced.

Beijing may consider an indirect response. Two Canadians have been jailed for well over a year in a case linked to an extradition case to the US against Meng Wanzhou, Huawei’s chief financial officer. The Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, said Beijing was using “arbitrary detention as a means to advance political gains”.

Tsang said the UK “should not underestimate the imaginative capacity of Chinese officials in thinking of ways to retaliate” including approaches that British authorities would not normally “consider appropriate”.

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