Jeremy Hunt admitted to a “terrible mistake” after describing his Chinese wife as Japanese during a diplomatic mission to Beijing.
The Foreign Secretary was hoping to use the visit to boost trade links and address sensitive issues including the human rights situation in Hong Kong.
At a meeting with Chinese counterparts, Mr Hunt said: “My wife is Japanese … my wife is Chinese.
“Sorry, that’s a terrible mistake to make.”
He wrote: “Rule #1 as a new Foreign Sec: when reflecting in English with the Chinese on a conversation you had with them in Japanese about your Chinese wife, don’t get any of those mixed up! Apologies to the long-suffering Mrs H…!”
Mr Hunt was using visit to show Britain’s commitment to deepening ties post-Brexit between the nations.
Trade, North Korea, nuclear weapons and climate change were among the topics up for discussion.
At a press conference with counterpart Wang Yi, Mr Hunt was asked about the situation in Hong Kong, which the UK handed back to China in 1997.
Under the “one country, two systems” model, Beijing promised to let Hong Kong maintain wide autonomy and civil liberties, but fears are growing that China’s leaders are backtracking by oppressing the political opposition.
Mr Hunt said: “We had extensive discussions about one country, two systems and the current situation in Hong Kong, and we had a very open and frank discussion about the concerns raised by a number of people.
“We also of course discussed our trading relationship, and I think the best way to continue to grow our trade and strength and trust between Britain and China is to be able to have the kind of open and frank discussions we had this morning.
“Hong Kong is part of China but of course we signed the joint declaration and we, as the United Kingdom, are very much committed to the one country, two systems approach, which we think has served both Hong Kong and China extremely well.”
Mr Wang pointedly responded: “Hong Kong affairs are the domestic affairs of China. We do not welcome nor do we accept other countries to interfere in China’s domestic affairs.”
But he insisted that “China will continue to support and will stay committed to one country, two systems”.
Asked if Theresa May was worried about her Foreign Secretary’s confusion over China and Japan, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “No, I think he is very clear on that.”