China distanced itself on Monday from statements made by its ambassador to France, who caused an uproar by questioning the independence of nations that had previously been a part of the USSR.
Beijing said Monday that it respects the “sovereign status” of all ex-Soviet countries, contradicting Ambassador Lu Shaye’s remarks suggesting that such states have no “effective status” in international law.
Lu’s comments in a French television interview on Friday triggered a diplomatic incident with Baltic countries over the weekend, which demanded the Chinese government clarify where it stands on the issue.
“China respects the sovereign state status of the participating republics after the dissolution of the Soviet Union,” China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning told reporters Monday in Beijing.
She added: “After the collapse of the Soviet Union, China was one of the first countries to establish diplomatic relations with relevant countries.”
China’s embassy in Paris issued a separate note Monday saying that the ambassador’s remarks “were not a statement of politics, but an expression of personal views during a televised debate.”
“They [Lu’s comments] should not be over-interpreted. China’s position on relevant issues has not changed,” reads the statement from the embassy.
EU governments were united in condemning the Chinese ambassador’s words, unequivocally backing Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia.
“We respect China, [but] it is important to respect us — this is crucial,” Italy’s foreign minister Antonio Tajani told reporters in Brussels, adding that he disagrees with Lu’s remarks.
Lithuanian foreign minister Gabrielius Landsbergis confirmed that the three EU states will summon their Chinese envoys on Monday, and compared Lu’s comments with Russian propaganda on Ukraine.
“They [Russian government officials] question the sovereignty of the countries, they question the borders, they question the integrity of the countries,” Landsbergis told reporters on his way into an EU foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg.
He added: “This is a narrative we’ve been hearing from Moscow, and now it’s being sent out by another country, which is in our eyes an ally of Moscow.”
Chines leader Xi Jinping has pledged a “no limits partnership” with Russia and was one of the first foreign leaders to visit president Vladimir Putin in Moscow after Russia invaded Ukraine. Chinese companies have also shipped assault rifles and body armor to Russia.
The EU’s relations with China have further risen to the fore after Commission President Ursula von der Leyen backed “de-risking” from Beijing, while French president Emmanuel Macron sent shock waves across the EU by warning that Europe should not get dragged into a confrontation between China and the U.S. over Taiwan.
The EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell indicated Monday that Lu’s remarks will feed into a broader discussion on China in the EU foreign ministers meeting.
“The [Foreign Affairs] Council will start discussing about China, in order to prepare the European [Council] in June,” Borrell told reporters before the start of the summit. “Maybe that will reassess and recalibrate our strategy toward China.”
Foreign ministers from other EU countries including Estonia, the Czech Republic, Finland and Romania also expressed disagreement with Lu’s comments.
In an open letter in the French daily Le Monde, 80 European parliamentarians urged the French government to expel the ambassador.
The Chinese ambassador will be told at a standing meeting with the French foreign ministry this afternoon, “We’re not very happy, quite firmly, on this occasion,” said Laurence Boone, the French minister for European affairs, at an event in Brussels.