Chinese diplomat draws ire from Baltic nations over statehood remarks

European governments have reacted with anger and dismay to comments by a Chinese diplomat questioning the legal status of former Soviet states and Ukraine’s sovereignty over Crimea.

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, who regained their independence from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, have said they will summon Chinese diplomats on Monday to complain about the remarks by Lu Shaye, Beijing’s ambassador in Paris.

“These ex-Soviet Union countries do not have effective status under international law because there is no international accord to concretise their status as a sovereign country,” Lu Shaye said during an interview with French news channel LCI.

When asked whether Crimea was part of Ukraine, Lu said the question was “not simple to answer with a few words” and pointed out that Crimea used to belong to Russia, while neglecting to mention that Russia illegally annexed the peninsula in 2014.

Ukrainian officials dismissed the Chinese comments. “All post-Soviet Union countries have a clear sovereign status enshrined in international law,” tweeted Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak. “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.”

The French foreign ministry also expressed “dismay” over Lu’s comments.

“It is up to China to say whether these remarks reflect its position, which we hope they do not,” the French foreign ministry said. “We stand in solidarity with our allies and affected partners, who won long-awaited independence after decades of oppression.” It also added that the “annexation of Crimea . . . was illegal under international law”.

The furore comes after Emmanuel Macron’s recent visit to Beijing, in which he said that China’s plan for Ukraine showed a “will to play a responsible role” in the conflict. The French president subsequently faced criticism for suggesting that the EU should avoid getting dragged into tensions between the US and China over Taiwan.

Gabrielius Landsbergis, Lithuania’s foreign minister, said: “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.”

Lu’s comments contradict China’s stated policy towards the former Soviet nations. China entered into diplomatic relations with these independent republics in September 1991.

“Lu Shaye has a radical, non-mainstream opinion which deviates from Beijing’s official position and practice,” said Moritz Rudolf, fellow at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center.

Edgars Rinkēvičs, Latvia’s foreign minister, called the comments “completely unacceptable”, and added: “We expect explanation from the Chinese side and complete retraction of this statement.”

Beijing’s foreign ministry has not yet commented on Lu’s remarks. Lu, who is in the fourth year of his posting in Paris, has typified Beijing’s recent fashion of “wolf warrior” diplomacy — named after a set of films in which Chinese special-operations fighters defeat western-led mercenaries — with his previous outspoken remarks.

Vadym Omelchenko, Ukraine’s ambassador to France, quipped that Lu should be asked “who owns Vladivostok?”, referring to the port city that Russia annexed from China in the mid-19th century.

Margus Tsahkna, Estonia’s foreign minister, called the ambassador’s comments “false and a misinterpretation of history”. He added: “Baltic states under international law have been sovereign since 1918 but were occupied for 50 years.”

The three Baltic states first declared independence in 1918 in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. The Soviet Union occupied and annexed them during the second world war in 1940 and then again in 1944. Most western countries refused to recognise the annexation. After their independence in 1990-91, all three joined the EU and Nato and have been strong supporters of Ukraine in its struggle against Russian aggression.

Lithuania has been in China’s crosshairs after deepening relations with Taiwan in 2021, to which Beijing responded with retaliatory sanctions. All three Baltic states have since pulled out of China’s former “17+1” dialogue for central and eastern European countries.

Joseph Wu, Taiwan’s foreign ministry, tweeted his support for Landsbergis’s remarks, adding: “Trust me, it takes #Taiwan to know & feel how far & how bad it can go”.

Additional reporting by Roman Olearchyk in Kyiv

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