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 affronted 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”.
“After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, China was one of the first countries to establish diplomatic relations with relevant countries,” China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning told a press briefing, adding: “China respects the sovereign status of the republics after the disintegration of the Soviet Union.”
Following Lu’s remarks, which came in an interview with French news channel LCI, France’s foreign ministry demanded that Beijing clarify its position. Ukraine’s presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak described Lu’s version of the history of Crimea as “absurd”.
Asked whether China would retract Lu’s comments, Mao responded: “What I can tell you is that my answer on the previous question represents the formal position of the Chinese government.”
Analysts suggested that the foreign ministry’s response represented a repudiation of the remarks from Lu, who has built a reputation as one of China’s “wolf warrior” diplomats known for their combative style.
Lu had 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”.
“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.”
The three Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia said they would summon senior Chinese diplomats on Tuesday to protest against Lu’s remarks, which a number of ministers condemned.
Lithuania’s foreign minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said the remarks were “completely unacceptable”, and demonstrated why the Baltic states did not trust Beijing’s intentions as a peace broker in Ukraine. Italy’s Antonio Tajani said he disagreed with the ambassador’s comments, adding that China must “respect all [EU] member states”.
EU foreign affairs ministers were planning to discuss 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 ahead of the talks.
But China’s efforts to walk back the ambassador’s claims were unlikely to satisfy the Baltics, which argue they were never part of the Soviet Union because they were illegally annexed. Most western countries never recognised that annexation.
“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.
A group of 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.
Speaking prior to the Chinese foreign ministry briefing, Borrell said the EU would provide “a strong position” in response. 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.
The full transcript of the ambassador’s interview was uploaded to the WeChat account of China’s embassy in France on Monday, but just hours later it was no longer accessible. Mao denied any knowledge of this.