Anger in Europe after Chinese envoy to France says ex-Soviet states not sovereign

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European states reacted with fury to remarks by China’s top envoy to France questioning the independence of ex-Soviet states, tainting the nation’s push to court leaders in the region and burnish its credentials to broker peace after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Ambassador Lu Shaye said in an interview aired on Friday on French network LCI that some “ex-Soviet Union countries” don’t have effective status under international law.

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“There is no international agreement to realize their status as a sovereign nation,” he said, after being questioned on whether he considers Crimea, a peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014, part of Ukraine.

But the comments quickly backfired, with Latvia, Lithuania,and Estonia announcing plans to summon the top Chinese diplomats in their nations to explain the comments. All three are former members of the Soviet bloc, which collapsed in 1991.

Latvia’s foreign minister Edgars Rinkēvis said in a Saturday post on Twitter that the coordinated move was in response to the “unacceptable statements” by Lu. Margus Tsahkna, his counterpart in Estonia, called the comments “false and a misinterpretation of history.”

The diplomatic firestorm threatens to overshadow China’s at-tempts to portray itself as a peacemaker in Russia’s war in Ukraine — and to improve trade and diplomatic relations with the European Union.

French President Emmanuel Macron, president of the European commission Ursula von der Leyen and German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock have visited Beijing in recent weeks.

It also puts a question mark over Macron’s initiative to work with China to establish a framework for negotiations between Russia and Ukraine, which Bloomberg News previously reported, citing people familiar with the plans.

France’s foreign ministry said it took note of Lu’s comments “with consternation and reiterated the illegality of the Crimea annexa-tion under international law,” according to a report from Dow Jones, citing a ministry spokesperson. “We stress our full solidarity with all of our allies and partners concerned, who have gained their long-awaited independence after decades of oppression,” the report quoted the ministry as saying.

The Chinese embassy in France and China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not immediately respond to queries from Bloomberg News sent outside normal operating hours.

Lithuania’s foreign minister Gabrielius Landsbergis cited Lu’s comments in a tweet on Saturday to explain “why the Baltic States don’t trust China” to “broker peace in Ukraine.”

Taiwan, which is seeking European support as Beijing seeks to peel off its remaining diplomatic allies, voiced support for
Lithuania’s position. Its foreign minister Joseph Wu responded to Landsbergis’s tweet on Sunday, voicing solidarity with the Baltic states.

“It is strange to hear an absurd version of the ‘history of Crimea’ from a representative of a country that is scrupulous about its thousand-year history," Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior Ukrainian presidential aide, wrote on Twitter.

“If you want to be a major political player, do not parrot the propaganda of Russian outsiders.”

China’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.

It’s not the first time Lu has stirred controversy with his remarks.

The outspoken ambassador has in the past embraced his role as a “wolf warrior,” referring to a more assertive, confrontational form of diplomacy which the nation appeared to have been shifting away from. Last year, he called for Taiwanese to be “re-educated” and blamed “foreign forces “for fueling mass protests that erupted in November over China’s strict COVID-19 policies.

Read more: Macron, Biden share willingness to engage China to end war in Ukraine, Elysee says

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