China respects the status of former Soviet member states as sovereign nations, its foreign ministry said on Monday, distancing itself from comments by its envoy to Paris that triggered an uproar among European capitals.
Several EU foreign ministers had said earlier that comments by Ambassador Lu Shaye — in which he questioned the sovereignty of Ukraine and other former Soviet states — were unacceptable and had asked Beijing to clarify its stance.
Asked about his position on whether Crimea was part of Ukraine or not, Lu said in an interview aired on French TV on Friday that historically it was part of Russia and had been offered to Ukraine by former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.
“These ex-USSR countries don’t have actual status in international law because there is no international agreement to materialise their sovereign status,” Lu added.
Lu has earned himself a reputation as one of China’s “wolf warrior” diplomats, so called for their hawkish and abrasive style.
Asked if Lu’s comments represented China’s official position, foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said that Beijing respected the status of the former Soviet member states as sovereign nations following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Mao told a regular news briefing that it was her remarks on sovereignty that represented China’s official government stance.
Her statement, following the backlash, appeared to be an effort to distance Beijing from Lu’s comments and ease the tension with Brussels.
China has been “objective and impartial” on issues of sovereignty, she said.
The Chinese embassy in Paris issued a statement later to say that Lu’s comments on Ukraine “were not a political declaration but an expression of his personal views”.
It said the comments should not be “over-interpreted”.
The statements from the Chinese foreign ministry and embassy in Paris came after criticism from several EU ministers.
Speaking ahead of a Luxembourg meeting of EU foreign ministers, Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavsky said Lu’s comments were “totally unacceptable”.
“I hope the bosses of this ambassador will make these things straight,” he told reporters.
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said the three Baltic countries — all formerly part of the Soviet Union — would summon Chinese representatives to officially ask for clarification and check if its position had changed.
Luxembourg’s foreign minister Jean Asselborn called Lu’s remarks a “blunder” and said efforts were being made to calm things down.
A French official said a “very firm” discussion would take place with the Chinese ambassador at the French foreign ministry.
Lu had already been summoned to the foreign ministry several times in the past, including for suggesting France was abandoning old people in nursing homes during the Covid-19 pandemic and for calling a respected China scholar at a French think-tank a “mad hyena”.
EU leaders would discuss the bloc’s stance towards China and its future relations with Beijing during their next summit in June, EU Council President Charles Michel said.