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China Walks Back Diplomat’s Apparent Questioning of Ex-Soviet States’ Independence

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China said it “respects” the independence of the former Soviet Union states and that its position is “unchanged,” after the nation’s diplomat to France sparked a firestorm in Europe by questioning their sovereignty.

“China respects the status of the former Soviet republics as sovereign countries after the Soviet Union’s dissolution,” Mao Ning, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, said Monday at a regular press briefing in Beijing.

Her remarks came days after Chinese Ambassador Lu Shaye told French network LCI that ex-Soviet states don’t have sovereign status as independent nations — a statement that ignored internationally recognized borders, and which caused anger among Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and others in Europe.

Those three nations said they’d summon Chinese diplomats in their capitals to explain the remarks. Top EU diplomat Josep Borrell called the comments “unacceptable.”

The Chinese Embassy in France posted a transcript of the interview on its official WeChat account Monday morning, but by midday had removed it. Mao said she was unaware of the situation.

Mao added that China has developed “friendly and cooperative bilateral relations” with the former Soviet nations since establishing diplomatic ties with them, adding that some media outlets are “misrepresenting” China’s position on Ukraine — though she didn’t name any in particular. She said the country stands by Lu.

Lu appeared to contradict China’s official stance, which recognized the independence of the Baltic states in 1991. President Xi Jinping has also reaffirmed their status, writing before a visit to Kazakhstan last year that the two nations supported their “respective sovereignty.” He also cited Uzbekistan’s “independence” in another statement around the same time.

Last week, Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang said in a speech in Shanghai that “China sees defending the authority of the United Nations and upholding the post-war international order as its solemn duty.” He added that his nation had suffered “among the heaviest casualties in the world” during World War II.

The controversy threatens to undermine Beijing’s efforts to be seen as a peacemaker for Russia’s war in Ukraine, especially given how much China already has touted its ties with Moscow.

Read More: Why China, Russia’s Biggest Backer, Now Says It Wants to Broker Peace in Ukraine

Xi seemed to have been making inroads on the peace efforts. He held a visit earlier this month with French President Emmanuel Macron, who has pushed for establishing a framework that could be used as a basis for future negotiations between Kyiv and Moscow.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva also recently visited Xi in China, and has been more politically aligned with Xi on the issue of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

On Monday, Mao, the foreign ministry spokeswoman, said China is “ready to facilitate” peace in Ukraine.

Tensions had been brewing between China and Eastern Europe before the ambassador’s remarks.

China-Lithuanian ties have been souring for a while, with Beijing imposing measures against the Baltic country’s goods after a dispute around the naming of a Taiwan trade office there. EU-initiated cases against China that are related to those restrictions are now with the World Trade Organization.

Last year, Latvia and Estonia also joined Lithuania in abandoning the so-called 16+1 eastern European framework with China, which once threatened to divide the European Union in its relations with the Asian nation.

—With assistance from Colum Murphy.

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