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A Chinese envoy's false claim about ex-Soviet countries sparks criticism

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

China's ambassador to France made some pretty big waves over the weekend with remarks in an interview on French TV.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LU SHAYE: (Speaking French).

CHANG: That is Ambassador Lu Shaye. He's saying that former Soviet countries do not have, quote, "real status under international law because there's no international agreement affirming them as sovereign countries." China's Foreign Ministry tried to walk the comments back today because they don't align with the country's official position, but the remarks have sparked sharp criticism and raised some tough questions for Europe. We're joined now by NPR's John Ruwitch, who covers China. Hey, John.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Good afternoon.

CHANG: Good afternoon. OK. So I don't get it. The Soviet Union collapsed, like, three decades ago. Why would Lu say those countries don't have true sovereignty?

RUWITCH: Yeah. It's a little puzzling. Lu's remarks came in answer to a question on the talk show about the status of Crimea, which has been occupied by Russia for nine years. He said the territory's status depends on how you view the problem and noted that Crimea had historically been Russian territory. Then he went on to make his remarks about the sovereignty of the post-Soviet states. You know, China's Foreign Ministry, as you said, essentially contradicted him on Monday. A spokeswoman said China was among the first countries to recognize those former Soviet states and has respected their sovereignty all along. It's worth noting this guy, Lu - he's made some pretty controversial remarks before. He's an iconic wolf warrior diplomat, but he's very senior. He's a seasoned diplomat. He speaks very good French and presumably knows his talking points.

CHANG: Right. Well, what's been the wider reaction so far to all of this?

RUWITCH: French President Emmanuel Macron, who was actually just in Beijing a few days back, said it's not the place of a diplomat to use this kind of language. In Ukraine, an adviser to the president's office said it was strange to hear a, quote, "absurd version of Crimea's history coming from China, which takes its history very seriously." The former Soviet Baltic states - Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia - were outraged and summoned Chinese diplomats. Lithuania's foreign minister raised another key point. He tweeted, quote, "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 country's borders have no legal basis."

CHANG: I mean, that seems like a major issue here, right?

RUWITCH: Yeah, it is. And it's not just the Baltics that are mistrustful. You know, this puts China right back in the spotlight on Ukraine. Beijing officially claims it's neutral in the conflict, but critics say it's firmly on Russia's side. So this is presumably not the kind of message that Beijing would want a top diplomat in Europe to convey. I talked with Noah Barkin a bit about this. He's a senior adviser at the research firm the Rhodium Group, and he follows China-Europe relations. He says there will be fallout.

NOAH BARKIN: These comments are going to lead to questions in Europe about whether China can play a constructive role in the war in Ukraine, whether Xi Jinping will be willing to lean on Vladimir Putin to bring about some form of peace.

CHANG: Interesting. So how big of a setback is this for China in Europe, you think?

RUWITCH: Well, it comes at a time when some in Europe were taking steps to try to stabilize pretty rocky ties with China. You know, many in the West saw Macron's visit to Beijing earlier this month in that light. And it's something of a diplomatic coup for China - right? - which is trying to drive a wedge between Europe and the U.S. There was a sort of growing hope that China might be able to be persuaded to work with Europe on Ukraine - and more broadly - after a period of tension, but Lu's comments just raise fresh questions about China's intentions and...

CHANG: Right.

RUWITCH: ...Give critics ammunition.

CHANG: That is NPR's John Ruwitch. Thank you, John.

RUWITCH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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John Ruwitch
John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.