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China backs away from ‘wolf-warrior’ remarks on Ukraine’s national sovereignty

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks during a virtual address to U.S. members of Congress, March 16, 2022. (Video screenshot)
April 30, 2023

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

China’s foreign ministry on Monday walked back comments calling into question Ukraine’s national sovereignty from one of its “wolf-warrior” diplomats who told a French TV station over the weekend that the country lacked “actual status in international law” – remarks that echoed Russian propaganda on Ukraine.

Lu Shaye, China’s ambassador to France, who has a track record of ruffling international feathers with hawkish comments, prompted an outcry from the governments of several former Soviet states when he said: “These ex-USSR countries don’t have actual status in international law because there is no international agreement to materialize their sovereign status.”

Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavsky branded Lu’s comments “totally unacceptable,” calling on Lu’s bosses to “make these things straight,” while the Baltic countries and the German government all called on Beijing for clarification.

A transcript of Lu’s remarks posted on the Chinese Embassy’s official WeChat account were subsequently deleted, according to Reuters, which added: “The embassy did not reply to a request for comment.”

Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning told a regular news briefing in Beijing on Monday: “China respects the status of the former Soviet republics as sovereign countries after the Soviet Union’s dissolution.”

“After the Soviet Union dissolved, China was one of the first countries that established diplomatic ties with the countries concerned,” she said, adding that “some media” had sought to misrepresent China’s position on Ukraine.

A ‘blunder’

Luxembourg’s foreign minister Jean Asselborn called Lu’s remarks a “blunder” and said efforts were being made to calm things down.

Josep Borrell, EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, tweeted on Sunday that Lu’s comments were “unacceptable,” and the EU could only suppose that his comments didn’t represent official policy in Beijing.

According to Le Monde and TF-1, Lu has received a summons from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs to explain himself to Luis Vassy, ​​chief of staff to foreign minister Catherine Colonna, while the three Baltic states will also summon their countries’ Chinese ambassadors.

Mao also repeated China’s intention to work for peace in Ukraine, which Russia invaded in February 2022.

“We will continue to work with the international community to make our own contribution to facilitating a political settlement of the Ukraine crisis,” she said.

Her comments will likely fall on skeptical ears in countries that were once part of the former Soviet Union.

“All post-Soviet Union countries have a clear sovereign status enshrined in international law,” Mikhailo Podolyak, adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, tweeted in response to Lu’s comments. “Except for Russia, which fraudulently took a seat in the UN Security Council.” 

He added: “If you want to be a major political player, do not parrot the propaganda of Russian outsiders.”

No trust for China

Meanwhile, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielus Landsbergis said via Twitter cited comments like Lu’s as the reason for a lack of trust in Beijing’s attempts at brokering “peace.”

“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,” Landsbergis said via his Twitter account on Saturday, along with a screenshot of Lu’s interview.

The row came as Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu warned that China’s own expansionist ambitions could pose a threat to world peace.

“If we flash back to the Second World War … (the origin was) one country, one man pointing to one territory and saying ‘that is mine and that is mine,’ and they go grab it,”  he told Canada’s Global News in an interview.

“It is the same situation in this part of the world. Somebody is saying ‘the Taiwan Strait is mine, Taiwan is mine, East China Sea is mine, and South China Sea is mine.’ And they want to go grab it. This is very dangerous and we should stop them from doing this.”

Wu also warned that Beijing’s overseas infiltration and influence operations under the aegis of the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front Work Department was seeking to undermine democracies in favor of authoritarian models of government.

“We are living in a democracy,” he said. “The Canadian people are also living in a democracy. And what authoritarianism wants is to undermine our democracy. They go through disinformation campaigns or interference in our politics to create domestic confusion or to create domestic distrust,” he said.

Lu has also created a stir with his comments on Taiwan, which has never been ruled by the Chinese Communist Party, claiming that the island’s 23 million had been “brainwashed,” and could become Chinese patriots if they were “re-educated.”

Public opinion polls in recent years have shown that the majority of people in Taiwan identify as Taiwanese rather than Chinese, and have no wish to give up their democratic way of life to be ruled by Beijing, particularly amid an ongoing crackdown on peaceful dissent and political opposition in Hong Kong.

Taiwan’s government under President Tsai Ing-wen has repeatedly warned of “cognitive warfare” and disinformation campaigns being waged on the island by agents and supporters of Beijing, recently launching a probe into a company believed to be operating on behalf of TikTok despite a government ban. 

But former Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, whose opposition Kuomintang favors closer ties with China, earlier this month claimed during a visit to China that the island’s people are “ethnically Chinese.”