BRUSSELS — China moved quickly on Monday to limit damage to its relations with Europe, repudiating the comments of Beijing’s ambassador in Paris who had questioned the sovereignty of post-Soviet nations like Ukraine in a televised interview.
The comments by Lu Shaye on Friday caused a diplomatic firestorm over the weekend among European foreign ministers and parliamentarians, with several countries summoning China’s envoys for explanations. His remarks threatened to throw a wrench in China’s ongoing efforts to balance courting European leaders with trade while supporting Russia, with which it has declared a “no limits” partnership.
The war in Ukraine has put Beijing in an awkward position: It has refused to condemn Russia’s invasion while also promising not to help Russia militarily in its war. China’s Foreign Ministry tried to stem the fallout of Mr. Lu’s remarks on Monday, insisting that it recognized the sovereignty of all the former Soviet republics that have declared independence, including Ukraine.
“China respects the sovereign status of former Soviet republics after the Soviet Union’s dissolution,” said the ministry spokeswoman, Mao Ning, speaking at a news briefing in Beijing.
Asked if Mr. Lu’s comments on Friday represented official policy, Ms. Mao responded: “I can tell you what I stated just now represents the official position of the Chinese government.”
Mr. Lu was responding to a question from the French television station, TF1, about whether Crimea, which was illegally annexed by Russia in 2014, was part of Ukraine under international law. He said that Crimea was Russian historically and had been handed over to Ukraine, then added: “Even these countries of the former Soviet Union do not have an effective status in international law, since there is no international agreement that would specify their status as sovereign countries.”
After the Chinese Foreign Ministry briefing on Monday, the Chinese Embassy in Paris issued a statement saying that Mr. Lu’s remarks “were not a political declaration but an expression of personal points of view during a televised debate.” Mr. Lu’s comments, the statement said, “should not be subject to over-interpretation.”
But the issue has not gone away. France, expressing “consternation,” summoned Mr. Lu on Monday to the Quai d’Orsay, the foreign ministry, to explain his comments. The three Baltic States, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, said that they would do the same.
Mr. Lu’s remarks have provoked especial anger in countries of Eastern and Central Europe that were under Soviet rule or occupation. The Baltic nations, which were annexed by the Soviet Union after World War II, are particularly sensitive to any suggestion that their sovereignty is under question.
At a meeting of E.U. foreign ministers in Luxembourg on Monday, Lithuania’s foreign minister, Gabrielius Landsbergis, said that the Chinese ambassadors would be asked to explain if the “Chinese position has changed on independence and to remind them that we’re not post-Soviet countries, but we’re the countries that were illegally occupied by Soviet Union.”
His Estonian counterpart, Margus Tsahkna, said that he wanted to know “why China has such a position or comments about the Baltic States,” which are all members of the European Union and NATO. Ms. Mao’s comments were not sufficient, he said, adding: “I hope that there will be an explanation. We are not satisfied with that announcement.”
On Monday, Charles Michel, the president of the European Council who chairs summits of the bloc’s 27 leaders, said that E.U.-China policy would be on the official agenda of the next meeting in June.
The declaration just before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine of a “no limits” partnership between Beijing and Moscow had already shaken Europeans, who retain major economic dependencies on China even as they have endeavored to lessen their reliance on Russian energy.
“This will only deepen concerns about China in Europe and reinforce anxiety about whether China can and will play a constructive role in the Ukraine crisis,” said Noah Barkin, a China specialist based in Berlin with the Rhodium Group, a research firm. “We’ve seen a flurry of visits by European leaders to Beijing, pushing Xi to lean on Putin, but all the signals have been in the other direction — that China is deepening its relationship with Russia.”
In contrast to Mr. Lu’s remarks, Fu Cong, China’s ambassador to the European Union, told The New York Times in an interview this month that China did not recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea or of parts of Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, instead recognizing Ukraine within its internationally accepted borders, in line with Ms. Mao’s remarks on Monday.
But Mr. Fu also said that Beijing had not condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine because it understood Russia’s claims about waging a defensive war against NATO encroachment, and because his government believes “the root causes are more complicated” than Western leaders say.
Mr. Lu, 58, has been China’s ambassador to France for nearly four years and has earned a reputation as a fierce, sometimes caustic representative of a less diffident China. He is considered one of the prime exponents of what has been called “wolf-warrior diplomacy,” named after two ultrapatriotic Chinese films featuring the evil plots and fiery demise of American-led foreign mercenaries.
Mr. Lu has responded aggressively to criticism of China over its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, which is believed to have begun in Wuhan, the city in central China where he was once a deputy mayor, and of its reluctance to deal transparently with the World Health Organization. He became well-known in France near the start of the pandemic, in April 2020, when an anonymous Chinese diplomat on the embassy website accused nurses in French care homes of having “abandoned their posts overnight” and “leaving their residents to die of hunger and disease.”
That outburst brought Mr. Lu’s first summons to the French Foreign Ministry, the first time a Chinese ambassador had been summoned there since the crackdown on democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
David Pierson contributed reporting from Singapore, and Christopher Buckley from Taipei, Taiwan. Olivia Wang contributed research.