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BEIJING (AP) — The Chinese government said Monday it respected the sovereignty of former Soviet Union republics after Beijing’s ambassador to France caused an uproar in Europe by saying they weren’t sovereign nations.
The governments of former Soviet republics Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were among those who rejected Ambassador Lu Shaye’s comment to a French broadcaster. While answering a question about the status of Crimea, which Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014, Lu said that there was no agreement to “solidify their status as a sovereign country.”
A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said that “China respects the sovereign status of the former Soviet countries after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.” Mao NingMao said Beijing’s position is “consistent and clear” but gave no indication whether Lu’s comment was considered incorrect.
The ambassador drew a parallel between Ukraine and the other former Soviet republics that declared independence from Moscow when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991.
“With regards to international law, even these ex-Soviet Union countries, they do not, they do not have the status — how to say it? — that’s effective in international law, because there is no international agreement to solidify their status as a sovereign country,” Lu told news channel LCI.
The Chinese Embassy in France clarified the ambassador’s remarks, saying in a statement that Lu was not making a “political declaration, but an expression of his personal view during a televised debate.”
WATCH: Amid Russian attacks on Ukraine, former Soviet republic of Moldova fears it could be next
His remarks “should not be the object of over-interpretation,” it said. “The position of China … has not changed.”
Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, it said, “China was among the first countries to establish diplomatic relations with the nations concerned. … The Chinese side respects the status of sovereign nations born after the breakup of the Soviet Union.”
Speaking after chairing a meeting of European Union foreign ministers, the bloc’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, welcomed the clarification provided by China.
“Beijing has distanced itself from the unacceptable remark of its ambassador to Paris,” Borrell told reporters in Luxembourg. He described the response from China’s foreign ministry as ”good news,” and added: “I believe that this issue has now been duly clarified.”
France and Estonia advised Ambassador Lu to think before he speaks.
In a meeting Monday with the ambassador, France’s Foreign Ministry underscored “the unacceptable character” of his questioning “the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all states,” according to a ministry statement.
It said the international community — China included — recognized the 15 nations which gained or recovered independence with the break-up of the Soviet Union, including Ukraine and its borders that included Crimea when it declared independence in 1991. The ministry called on the ambassador to reflect on “the official positions of his country when he speaks publicly,” the statement said.
In Estonia, senior foreign ministry official Kristi Karelsohn told the Chinese charge d’affaires that even if the remarks by the Paris ambassador, Lu, reflected a personal position, he was nevertheless an official representative of China.
“We hope that representatives of China will refrain from expressing these kinds of opinions in the future,” Karelsohn said according to the Baltic News Service, the region’s main news agency.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he doesn’t recognize Ukraine’s sovereignty. The Kremlin has also made clear that it sees the independence of the Baltic States and their role in NATO and the EU as threats to Russian security.
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s government sees Moscow as a partner in opposing U.S. domination of global affairs.
Beijing declared it had a “no-limits friendship” with Moscow before Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine but has tried to appear neutral, calling for a cease-fire and peace talks. China has repeated Russian justifications for the invasion.
Governments including the United States say a cease-fire would legitimize Putin’s territorial gains.
“If anyone is still wondering why the Baltic states don’t trust China to ‘broker peace in Ukraine,’ here’s a Chinese ambassador arguing that Crimea is Russian and our countries’ borders have no legal basis,” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said on Twitter.
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