Beijing was forced to back down after its ambassador to France sparked outrage in Europe over the weekend by questioning the legal status of former Soviet states and Ukraine’s sovereignty over Crimea.
China’s foreign ministry on Monday contradicted Lu Xie’s comments, which insulted European capitals and fueled disbelief over Beijing’s ambitions to mediate the war in Ukraine.
The issue of Crimea, annexed by Russia in 2014, “is not easy to answer in a few words,” Lu added.
“After the collapse of the Soviet Union, China is one of the first countries to establish diplomatic relations with related countries,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Mao Ning told a press conference: “China respects the sovereign status of republics after the collapse of the Soviet Union.”
Following Lu’s comments in an interview with French news channel LCI, France’s foreign ministry demanded Beijing clarify its position. Ukraine’s presidential adviser Mykhailo Podoliak described Lu’s version of Crimea’s history as “absurd”.
Asked if China would retract Lu’s comments, Mao replied: “What I can tell you is that my answer to the previous question reflects the formal position of the Chinese government.”
Analysts said the Foreign Ministry’s response was a repudiation of comments by Lu, who has a reputation as one of China’s “wolf warrior” diplomats.
“These former Soviet Union countries do not have effective status under international law because there is no international agreement to confirm their status as a sovereign state,” Lu said.
“As a matter of law, [Lu’s stance] This is a false statement, which is inconsistent with the position the Chinese government has repeatedly announced,” said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing. “Politically, this further worsens relations with Eastern European countries, and may have a ripple effect in Central Asian countries.”
The three Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia said on Tuesday they would summon senior Chinese diplomats to protest Lu’s comments, which several ministers condemned.
Lithuania’s Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis called the comments “absolutely unacceptable” and demonstrated why the Baltic states do not believe in Beijing’s intentions to broker peace in Ukraine. Italy’s Antonio Tajani said he disagreed with the ambassador’s comments, adding that China should “respect everyone”. [EU] Member States”.
EU foreign ministers plan to discuss Lu’s comments at a meeting in Luxembourg on Monday, part of a wider conference to “assess and review” the bloc’s stance on Beijing.
But China’s efforts to retract the ambassador’s claims are unlikely to satisfy the Baltics, who were never part of the Soviet Union because they were illegally annexed. Most Western countries have never recognized that connection.
“Lithuania did not join the Soviet Union. Moscow illegally occupied our territory, so we resisted until we regained our independence and the Red Army returned home. We are not post-Soviet, we were never Soviet,” Landsbergis wrote on Twitter.
A group of more than 80 members of parliament from various European countries signed a petition calling on the French government to declare Lou “persona non grata”, meaning they no longer recognize him as a diplomat.
Speaking ahead of a Chinese foreign ministry conference, Borrell said the EU would offer “a stronger position” in return. Charles Michel, president of the European Council, who will chair a summit of the group’s 27 leaders, said EU-China policy would be on the official agenda for the next meeting in June.
As for Ukraine, China’s Foreign Ministry did not directly mention Crimea, saying only that its position was “clear and stable.”
“We are ready to continue working with the international community to make our own contribution to a political solution to the crisis in Ukraine,” the spokesman said.
A full transcript of the ambassador’s interview was uploaded to the WeChat account of the Chinese embassy in France on Monday, but was not accessible until hours later. Mao denied any knowledge of this.