BRUSSELS — China moved on Monday to limit damage to its relations with Europe, repudiating comments made by 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 lawmakers, with several countries summoning China’s envoys for an explanation. His remarks threatened to harm 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 from 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.”
The scuffle over his remarks came as Russian forces intensified their bombardment of the southern Kherson region on Sunday, killing at least two. The region is expected to be the focal point of a Ukrainian counterattack in the coming weeks or months, and the Russian occupation authorities appeared to be on high alert: On Monday, they said they shot down a drone that was trying to attack the port of Sevastopol, in Crimea.
A question about Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014, began the diplomatic dispute in European capitals over Mr. Lu’s remarks. Responding to a question from the French television station, TF1, about whether Crimea was part of Ukraine under international law, he said that Crimea was historically Russian and had been handed over to Ukraine; then he 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 rejecting Mr. Lu’s remarks. His comments “were not a political declaration but an expression of personal points of view during a televised debate,” the statement said, and “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 special anger in the 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 whether 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, said that E.U.-China policy would be on the official agenda of the next meeting in June. The Europeans are beginning to work on a new China strategy paper, to replace the one written in 2018.
The declaration just before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine of a “no limits” partnership between the presidents of China and Russia, Xi Jinping and Vladimir V. Putin, 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.”
“At the European level the damage is done and won’t be undone easily,” said François Godement, a scholar of China with the Institut Montaigne in Paris. He said he would not be surprised if Mr. Lu were withdrawn as ambassador, given the importance of the French-Chinese relationship and the speed at which Beijing disavowed his comments.
“Tension is building in Europe about China, with people paying keen attention to how Beijing is behaving,” said Theresa Fallon, director of the Center for Russia Europe Asia Studies in Brussels. There has already been a backlash, she noted, about this month’s visit by President Emmanuel Macron of France to Beijing, his suggestion that Taiwan was a relatively unimportant issue for Europe and his remarks about European independence from Washington, especially given the vital role the United States is playing in Ukraine in the name of European security.
Europeans, Ms. Fallon said, will listen to Mr. Lu’s comments “and think, this is how the Chinese and Russians talk among themselves,” about a world divided into spheres of influence — China over Taiwan and the Pacific, and Russia over Ukraine and its former empire.
This latest episode will “put Beijing on the back foot for a while,” she said. “For a long time, Europeans saw what they wanted to see, and now it’s harder to continue with the pantomime, that if we can get Xi to push Putin we can end the war.”
In remarks that contrasted with Mr. Lu’s, 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 Beijing. 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. 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. It was 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.