Beijing has been forced to backtrack after its ambassador to France sparked a furore in Europe at the weekend by questioning the legal status of former Soviet states and Ukraine’s sovereignty over Crimea.
China’s foreign ministry on Monday contradicted the comments from Lu Shaye, who had infuriated European capitals and fuelled distrust about Beijing’s ambitions to mediate the war in Ukraine by suggesting that former Soviet states lacked “effective status under international law”.
Lu added that the issue of Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014, was “not simple to answer with a few words”.
China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning told a press briefing on Monday: “After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, China was one of the first countries to establish diplomatic relations with relevant countries.
“China respects the sovereign status of the republics after the disintegration of the Soviet Union.”
Later on Monday, the Chinese embassy in Paris posted a statement online saying that Lu’s “remarks on the Ukraine issue were not a statement of policy but an expression of personal views”.
French president Emmanuel Macron said: “I think it is not the place of a diplomat to hold this kind of language.”
The French foreign ministry summoned the Chinese ambassador on Monday after demanding that Beijing clarify its position.
In his initial remarks made in an interview with French news channel LCI, Lu said that “these ex-Soviet Union countries do not have effective status under international law because there is no international accord to concretise their status as a sovereign country”.
Analysts suggested the Chinese foreign ministry’s response represented a repudiation of the remarks from Lu, who has built a reputation as one of the “wolf warrior” diplomats known for their combative style.
“Legally speaking, [Lu’s stance] is a misstatement, which is not compatible with the position the Chinese government has declared many times,” said Shi Yinhong, professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing. “Politically, it further deteriorates relations with eastern European countries, and potentially has a ripple effect on central Asian ones.”
EU foreign affairs ministers discussed Lu’s comments at a meeting in Luxembourg on Monday as part of a wider conference to “assess and recalibrate” the bloc’s stance towards Beijing, the EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell said. He added after the talks that the clarification from the Chinese foreign ministry was “good news”.
But China’s efforts to play down the ambassador’s claims have not satisfied the Baltic nations of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, who said they would summon senior Chinese diplomats on Tuesday to protest against Lu’s remarks.
Gabrielius Landsbergis, Lithuania’s foreign minister, said the remarks were “completely unacceptable” and demonstrated why the Baltic states did not trust Beijing’s intentions as a peace broker in Ukraine.
“Lithuania never joined the USSR. Moscow illegally occupied our territory, so we resisted until we restored our independence and the Red Army went back home. We’re not post-Soviet, we’re never-Soviet,” Landsbergis wrote on Twitter.
Italy’s Antonio Tajani said he disagreed with the ambassador’s comments, adding that China must “respect all [EU] member states”.
More than 80 parliamentarians from various European countries signed a petition calling for the French government to declare Lu “persona non grata”, meaning they would no longer recognise him as a diplomat.
Charles Michel, the president of the European Council who chairs summits of the bloc’s 27 leaders, said that EU-China policy would be on the official agenda of the next meeting in June.
Regarding Ukraine, China’s foreign ministry did not address Crimea directly, saying only that its position was “clear and consistent”.
“We are willing to continue to work with the international community to make our own contribution to the political settlement of the Ukraine crisis,” the spokesperson said.
Mykhailo Podolyak, Ukraine’s presidential adviser, described Lu’s version of the history of Crimea as “absurd”.
Additional reporting by Leila Abboud in Paris and Laura Dubois in Ostend