June 6, 2023

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Lu Shai, China’s ambassador to France, in 2019. On French television on Friday, he said that post-Soviet countries “have no effective status in international law.”credit…Sebastien Nogier/EPA, via Shutterstock

France summoned the Chinese ambassador to Paris, Lu Shaye, on Monday to clarify his controversial remarks on French television questioning the sovereignty of post-Soviet states. The Baltic states, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania said they would send envoys from China to the three countries to discuss the matter.

China’s foreign ministry attempted to repair the damage on Monday, insisting it recognizes the sovereignty of all former Soviet republics that declared independence, including Ukraine.

“China respects the sovereign status of the former Soviet republics after the dissolution of the Soviet Union,” said the ministry’s spokeswoman, Mao Ning, at a news conference in Beijing. When asked if Mr. Lu’s comments represented official policy, Ms. Mao replied: “I can tell you that what you said now represents the official position of the Chinese government.”

She added, “China’s position on relevant issues has not changed,” and noted that China was among the first countries to establish relations with all “relevant countries” after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Recent rhetorical shifts by Chinese diplomats — including Mr Lu and Fu Cong, the Chinese ambassador to the European Union — suggest that Beijing is still struggling to balance courting European leaders with support for Russia, with which it has declared a “no borders” partnership. The war in Ukraine put Beijing in an awkward position: it refused to condemn the Russian invasion while also promising not to help Russia militarily in its war.

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Mr Le caused widespread consternation when asked on French television station, TF1, whether Crimea, which was illegally annexed by Russia in 2014, is part of Ukraine under international law. He said that Crimea was historically Russian and was handed over to Ukraine. He added, “Even the countries of the former Soviet Union do not have an effective place in international law, as there is no international agreement defining their status as sovereign states.”

By contrast, Fu Cong, China’s ambassador to the European Union, told the New York Times in an interview this month that China had not recognized Russia’s annexation of Crimea or parts of Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region, instead recognizing Ukraine within its internationally accepted borders. In line with Ms. Mao’s remarks on Monday.

But Mr. Fu also said Beijing did not condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine because it understood Russia’s claims that it was a defensive war against encroaching NATO, and because his government believed the “root causes are more complex” than Western leaders say.

However, Mr. Low’s comments caused confusion and anger in Ukraine and the European Union, especially among Eastern and Central European countries that were under Soviet rule or occupation. The Baltic states, which were annexed by the Soviet Union after World War II, are particularly sensitive to any indication that their sovereignty is in question.

At a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg on Monday, Lithuania’s foreign minister, Gabrielius Landsbergis, said Chinese ambassadors would be asked to clarify whether “the Chinese position on independence has changed and remind them that we are not post-Soviet.” countries, but we are the countries illegally occupied by the Soviet Union.

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His Estonian counterpart, Margos Tsakna, said he wanted to know “why China has such a stance or comments about the Baltic countries,” which are all members of the European Union and NATO. He said Ms. Mao’s comments were not enough. I hope there is an explanation. We are not satisfied with this announcement.”

Josep Borrell Fontel, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, called Mr Lew’s remarks “unacceptable”, as did Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavsky. Brussels, too, wants an additional explanation from Beijing, Mr. Borrell said.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, called Mr. Low’s remarks a “huge mistake” and said efforts were being made to de-escalate matters.

Mr. Lu was a proponent of the tough speaking style sometimes called “wolf warrior” diplomacy. It will be the third time he has been called up to France’s Quai d’Orsay in the past three and a half years.

Christopher Buckley Contributed reporting from Taipei, Taiwan. Olivia Wang Contribute to the research.