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Macron’s push to get China’s help on Ukraine is unraveling fast

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French President Emmanuel Macron’s diplomatic efforts to enlist China’s help to intervene in Russia’s war in Ukraine has suffered another blow.

The Chinese Ambassador to France, Lu Shaye, told the French network LCI that the ex-Soviet states don’t have sovereign status as independent nations, a statement that ignores the internationally recognized borders in Eastern and Central Europe.

Lu’s comments triggered furious reactions, particularly in the former Soviet bloc countries Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which announced plans to summon Chinese diplomats in their capitals. The Biden administration had already expressed irritation with Macron on his outreach to China, according to people familiar with the matter.

Lu’s Friday remarks undercut Macron’s push to use talks between his foreign policy adviser Emmanuel Bonne and China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, to establish a framework that could be used as a basis for future negotiations between Ukraine and Russia.

Russia’s war in Ukraine is at a crucial point, with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy struggling to maintain the confidence of his allies as he prepares for an expected spring counteroffensive to try to regain territory occupied by Russian forces. Doubts about whether Kyiv can take back land have been fed by Macron’s push for negotiations, putting allies’ united front at risk.

Macron’s bid to engage in such a sensitive diplomatic effort without first consulting all European Union members was criticized by allies as premature and as one that could jeopardize the bloc’s unity. The French leader’s approach to Ukraine hasn’t gone down well in Washington either, according to people familiar with the matter.

Lu, when asked on Friday if he considered Crimea — a peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014 — part of Ukraine, said that “ex-Soviet Union countries don’t have effective status under international law. The statement appears to be in conflict with China’s own recognition of the independence of the Baltic states in 1991.

France’s foreign ministry said it took note of the ambassador’s comments with “dismay and urged China to clarify whether these comments reflect its official position. The EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, said the remarks were “unacceptable.

The comments from Lu, who is known for making repeated hardline statements on TV, sounded like yet another cold shower on Macron’s hopes to get Beijing to engage with Ukraine. While China casts itself as neutral, its stance has boosted Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine.

Some eastern members of the EU have bristled at Macron’s visions for the bloc, particularly when he speaks of European strategic autonomy and relying less on the US. He drew particular criticism following a state visit to China earlier this month when he called for Europe to avoid being dragged into a conflict between Beijing and Washington over Taiwan.

US reaction

There was a call last week between Macron and President Joe Biden and from the readouts both gave the tone was icy, with lots to read between the lines. Macron’s office published a statement on Thursday to defuse the idea that the French president is at odds with the US on China and Taiwan, according to a French official speaking on condition of anonymity.

Earlier, Biden’s office published a shorter statement saying the two “had reaffirmed the importance of maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait. By contrast, the French statement made no direct mention of Taiwan.

When it comes to the war in Ukraine, people familiar with the Biden administration’s thinking said that the White House was annoyed by what they see as Macron freelancing on a delicate diplomatic issue without consulting with allies.

These people, speaking on condition of anonymity because the conversations were private, also pointed out that it’s not the first time Macron has suggested a blueprint for peace and then had to retreat. Their view is that it’s clear the Chinese aren’t willing to use their influence with Putin, so it’s unlikely Macron can do any better this time.

Solo diplomacy

Macron has shown a willingness to conduct solo diplomatic efforts, many of which have failed. On his recent trip to China, the French president fell short of his goal to convince Xi to talk to Zelenskiy — the two still haven’t spoken since the war broke out more than a year ago.

Macron traveled to Moscow in February of 2022 to try to get assurances from Moscow that Ukraine wouldn’t be attacked. French officials then said they had received a commitment from Putin not to escalate the situation, which the Kremlin later denied. Two weeks later, Russia invaded Ukraine.

Macron has previously said that he sees a major role for China and that thanks to its relationship with Russia it could “bring Moscow back to reason. Beijing so far hasn’t shown signs that it’s willing to pressure Moscow to withdraw troops.

Many countries have expressed skepticism that China can serve as a neutral intermediary given its “no-limits friendship with Russia. Xi and Putin have repeatedly pledged to strengthen ties, including between their militaries.

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