China has stated that it respects the sovereignty of former Soviet republics following remarks made by its ambassador in France that were deemed “unacceptable” in Europe. Lu Shaye had told French media that countries formerly part of the Soviet Union lacked status in international law. This sparked criticism in several European countries, especially the Baltic nations that broke free from the USSR in 1991. Lithuania’s Foreign Affairs Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said that they were “countries that were illegally occupied by the Soviet Union.” Estonian Foreign Affairs Minister Margus Tsahkna echoed the sentiment, stating that “we are an independent country, member of the EU, of NATO. I hope there will be an explanation.” Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavsky also denounced the comments as “totally unacceptable.”
China’s foreign affairs ministry spokesperson Mao Ning clarified China’s position, stating that “China respects the status of the former Soviet republics as sovereign countries after the Soviet Union’s dissolution.” The controversy comes as the European Union (EU) is reassessing its diplomatic and economic relationship with China. French President Emmanuel Macron had earlier called for the EU to have its own policy on Taiwan and to avoid following the U.S. agenda on the matter. This was criticized in the U.S. and some European nations, exposing a divide within the EU about its relationship with China.
The EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, said that the subject would be debated among the 27 heads of state, including Macron and Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz, at a meeting in June. Borrell added that “we will reassess and recalibrate our strategy towards China.” However, achieving a consensus on the matter may be difficult, given the economic importance of China for Europe. In 2022, China was the largest source of EU imports and the third-largest buyer of EU goods.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has described China as a “systemic rival,” an economic competitor, and a strategic partner. However, combining these different dynamics may prove challenging. Von der Leyen has emphasized the importance of managing the relationship with China and having an open and frank exchange with Chinese counterparts. She has also called for a discussion on a more ambitious partnership and on making competition fairer and more disciplined.
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