BRUSSELS – China moved on Monday to limit the damage to relations with Europe, denying comments by Beijing’s ambassador in Paris, who had questioned the sovereignty of post-Soviet nations like Ukraine in a TV interview.
Lu Shaye’s comments on Friday set off a diplomatic storm over the weekend between foreign ministers and European lawmakers, with several countries summoning Chinese envoys to demand an explanation.
His remarks threatened to undermine efforts China is making to woo European leaders with trade, while also backing Russia, with which it has declared a partnership.”unlimited”.
The war in Ukraine has put Beijing in an awkward position:
He refused to condemn the Russian invasion and at the same time promised not to aid Russia militarily in its war.
China’s foreign ministry tried to contain the fallout from Lu’s remarks on Monday, insisting on recognizing the sovereignty of all former Soviet republics that have declared their independence, including Ukraine.
“China respects the sovereign status of the former Soviet republics after the dissolution of the Soviet Union,” ministry spokesman Mao Ning said at a news conference in Beijing.
When asked whether Lu’s comments on Friday represented official policy, Mao replied:
“I can tell you that what I just said represents the official position of the Chinese government.”
The gaffe over his remarks came on Sunday when Russian forces intensified their shelling in the southern region of Kherson, killing at least two people.
The region is expected to be at the center of a Ukrainian counterattack in the coming weeks or months, and Russian occupation authorities appear to be on high alert: on Monday they said they had shot down a drone attempting to attack the Crimean port of Sevastopol.
A question about Crimeawhich Russia illegally annexed in 2014, sparked diplomatic controversy in European capitals over Lu’s remarks.
In response to a question from French broadcaster TF1 about whether Crimea was part of Ukraine under international law, he said that Crimea was historically Russian and had been handed over to the Ukraine;
then he added: “Not even these countries of the former Soviet Union have an effective status in international law, since there is no international agreement that specifies their status as sovereign countries”.
After the Chinese Foreign Ministry briefing on Monday, the Chinese Embassy in Paris issued a statement rejecting Lu’s remarks.
His comments “were not a political statement, but an expression of personal opinions during a televised debate,” the statement said, and “should not be interpreted excessively.
But the problem has not disappeared.
France, expressing its “dismay”, summoned Lu on Monday at Quai d’Orsaythe Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to explain its observations.
The three Baltic states, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, they said they would do the same.
Lu’s remarks aroused particular anger in Central and Eastern European countries that were once under Soviet rule or occupation.
The Baltic countries, annexed by the Soviet Union after World War II, are particularly sensitive to any suggestion that their sovereignty is in question.
At a meeting of European Union foreign ministers on Monday in Luxembourg, the foreign minister of Lithuania, Gabrielius Landsbergis, said Chinese ambassadors will be asked to explain whether “the Chinese position on independence has changed and to remind them that we are not post-Soviet countries, but the countries that were illegally occupied by the Soviet Union“.
His Estonian counterpart, Margus Tsahkna, said he wanted to know “why China has such a position or comments on the Baltic states,” all of which are EU and NATO members.
Mao’s comments weren’t enough, he said, adding:
“I hope there is an explanation. We are not satisfied with that announcement.”
On Monday, Charles Michel, president of the European Council, said EU-China policy would be on the official agenda of the next meeting in June.
Europeans are starting work on a new document China strategy which will replace the one drafted in 2018.
The declaration, shortly before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, of an “unlimited” partnership between the presidents of China and RussiaXi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, it had already shaken Europeans, who maintain significant economic dependencies on China even as they have worked to reduce their dependence on Russian energy.
“This will only increase China’s concerns in Europe and reinforce anxiety that China can and will play a constructive role in the Ukraine crisis,” said Noah Barkin, a Berlin-based China specialist at Rhodium Group, a research company.
“We have seen a flurry of visits by European leaders to Beijing, who have pressured Xi not to support Putin, but all the signs have gone in the opposite direction: that China is deepening its relations with Russia.”
“At a European level, the damage has already been done and will not be easily repaired,” said François Godement, a China scholar at the Montaigne Institute in Paris.
He said he would not be surprised if Lu was removed as ambassador, given the importance of Franco-China relations and how quickly Beijing reneged on his comments.
“In Europe, tension around China is rising and people are paying close attention to Beijing’s behavior,” said Theresa Fallon, director of the Center for Russia-Europe-Asia Studies in Brussels.
There has already been a backlash, he noted, on this month’s visit by the president of France, Emmanuel Macronin Beijing, your suggestion that Taiwan it was a relatively small matter for Europe and its comments on European independence from Washington, especially given the vital role the United States is playing in Ukraine in the name of European security.
Europeans, Fallon said, will hear Lu’s comments “and think, this is how the Chinese and Russians talk to each other,” about a world divided into spheres of influence:
China on Taiwan and the Pacific and Russia on Ukraine and its former empire.
This latest episode “will put Beijing on the ropes for a while,” he said.
“For a long time, Europeans have seen what they wanted to see, and now it’s more difficult to continue with the pantomime that if we can get Xi to put pressure on Putin we can end the war.”
In remarks that contrast with Lu’s, Fu Cong, China’s ambassador to the EU, said in an interview this month with The New York Times compared to China did not recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea or parts of Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region but instead recognized Ukraine within its internationally accepted borders, in line with Mao’s remarks on Monday.
But Fu also said Beijing did not condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine because it understood Russia’s claims about waging a defensive war against the NATO invasion, and because its government believes “the root causes are more complicated” than Western leaders claim.
Lu, 58, has been China’s ambassador to France for nearly four years and has built a reputation fierce rep, sometimes caustic, from Beijing.
He is considered a leading exponent of what has been dubbed “wolf warrior diplomacy,” named after two ultra-patriotic Chinese films featuring evil conspiracies and the ferocious disappearance of American-led foreign mercenaries.
Lu has responded aggressively to criticism leveled at China for its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is believed to have started in Wuhan, the central Chinese city where he was deputy mayor.
It became widely known in France at the start of the pandemic, in April 2020, when an anonymous Chinese diplomat accused French nursing home nurses on the embassy website of “abandoning their posts at night for the morning” and “left its residents to die of starvation and disease.
That outburst led to Lu’s first appearance before the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
It was the first time a Chinese ambassador had been summoned there since the crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in the Plaza de tiananmen in 1989.
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Mary Ortiz is a seasoned journalist with a passion for world events. As a writer for News Rebeat, she brings a fresh perspective to the latest global happenings and provides in-depth coverage that offers a deeper understanding of the world around us.