On Friday, April 21, 2023, Lu Shaye, the Chinese Ambassador to France, made statements during an interview with the French news channel LCI that caused a general outcry in the Western world. He questioned the status of Crimea belonging to Ukraine, the sovereignty of the former Soviet Union countries, and the borders established after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Lu Shaye stated, „Crimea originally belonged to Russia. It was Khrushchev who gave Crimea to Ukraine during the time of the Soviet Union,” and that the countries of the former USSR „do not have effective status in international law because there is no international agreement to concretize their status as sovereign countries.”[i] This interview took place shortly after Emmanuel Macron’s visit to China (April 5-8, 2023), in an attempt to pressure the Chinese President to exert influence on Russia to end the war in Ukraine. The timing of this interview was not favorable to French diplomacy, which promptly condemned Lu Shaye’s statements. Other European countries, particularly those from the former Soviet Union, criticized Lu Shaye’s remarks, and China also distanced itself from its ambassador’s position. However, this does not mean that Lu Shaye’s statements are meaningless, as they reflect China’s increasingly clear stance on the issue of the war in Ukraine.
In response to the Chinese ambassador’s statements, the Quai d’Orsay (French Ministry of Foreign Affairs) expressed „consternation” and directly asked China to „clarify if these statements reflect its position, which we hope is not the case.”[ii] Furthermore, on Monday, April 24, the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs received Lu Shaye in a visit planned before the diplomatic incident, and took the opportunity to reprimand the Chinese ambassador. The Director of the Cabinet of the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, Catherine Colonna, met with Lu Shaye and urged him „to use his public speech in a manner consistent with the official positions of his country.” A statement issued after this meeting indicated that the ministry „highlighted the unacceptable nature of challenging the respect for the sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of all states, fundamental principles of the United Nations Charter, which apply to all.” Emmanuel Macron also joined in condemning these remarks, stating in Ostend, Belgium, that „It is not the place of a diplomat to use this type of language” and expressing „full solidarity with countries that have been attacked in the interpretation of their history and borders.”[iii] Lu Shaye’s statements are troubling for French diplomacy as they go against the joint declaration between France and China issued following Emmanuel Macron’s visit to China, in which they committed „to support any effort towards the return to peace in Ukraine.”[iv] The Chinese ambassador’s remarks contradict this joint declaration, as the illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014 is a highly contentious issue in the war in Ukraine. Furthermore, Emmanuel Macron had caused controversy upon his return from his visit to China by stating that France should not be „subservient” to the United States in its support for Taiwan in case of conflict, and advocated for European strategic autonomy. This French position was praised by Lu Shaye, who stated during the interview that „Europe needs strategic autonomy, and that is what China has always supported.”[v] However, China’s support for this strategic autonomy is aimed at only creating a dissociation between the European Union and the United States, and weakening the West.
A united front criticizing these remarks
France is not the only country to have condemned the remarks made by the Chinese ambassador. Indeed, European parliamentarians were shocked and in a joint article signed by 80 parliamentarians, including five French members, they called on Catherine Colonna to declare Lu Shaye „persona non grata”. They want Lu Shaye to be expelled from the French Embassy because, according to the article, these are „clearly violating international law and must be considered as a threat to the security of European countries that are partners of France.”[vi] They add that „these are the words of „wolf warriors” at their zenith, which must not go unanswered.” On his part, the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, stated that „the European Union can only assume that these statements do not represent China’s official position.” These remarks are indeed a total denial of the sovereignty of the countries of the former Soviet Union, and a manipulation of history by the Chinese diplomat. Kiev has therefore reacted strongly to Lu Shaye’s statements, particularly with regard to the ownership of Crimea by Ukraine. Mykhailo Podoliak, an advisor to the Ukrainian presidency, said that „it is strange to hear an absurd version of the „history of Crimea” from a representative of a country that is scrupulous about its millennial history.” He also affirmed that „all the former Soviet Union countries have a clear sovereign status enshrined in international law.”[vii] The Baltic countries, also targeted in terms of their sovereignty, have strongly criticized these remarks. Successively, the foreign ministers of the Baltic countries have spoken out, with the Estonian Margus Tsahkna referring to „false statements” and „historical misinterpretation”, the Latvian Edgars Rinkevics describing the remarks as „totally unacceptable”, and the Lithuanian Gabrielius Landsbergis stating following the interview that Chinese diplomats from the three Baltic countries would be summoned to „remind them that we are not post-Soviet countries but countries that were illegally occupied by the Soviet Union.”[viii] It is therefore a unanimous condemnation of the Chinese ambassador’s remarks, in a context where the Russian invader threatens the security of all of Europe.
The Chinese attitude
Thus, faced with so much criticism, China had no other choice but to distance itself from its ambassador. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning expressed on Monday, April 24, that „China respects the sovereign state status of the republics born after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.”[ix] The spokeswoman’s statement is also visible on the website of the Chinese Embassy in France, where it is stated that „Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, China was one of the first countries to establish diplomatic relations with the countries concerned.” It is also written that China does not share Lu Shaye’s opinion since it was „the expression of personal views during a televised debate.”[x] In this sense, China has removed the interview of its ambassador from its Twitter account and has published:”China’s position on the issue of Ukraine is consistent and clear.”[xi]. However, these statements come in a context of rapprochement between Russia and China, as evidenced by the Chinese Defense Minister’s official visit to Russia on April 16, to meet with his Russian counterpart and Vladimir Putin. Lu Shaye also recalled during his interview that China and Russia are „global strategic partners,” and he emphasized the „high quality of bilateral relations.”[xii] Although it should be noted that, on April 26, Xi Jinping contacted his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky, for the first time since the beginning of the Russian aggression, in order to reaffirm his willingness to engage in „dialogue and negotiations”[xiii] between Ukraine and Russia. This call has been welcomed by the international community, however, it is not yet known whether it will lead to concrete solutions. Still, the fact remains that, during the interview, Lu Shaye put forward the Russian vision that the countries of the former USSR are part of Russia’s „sphere of influence” and that Russia should „reclaim” them[xiv]. This highlights the parallel between Ukraine and Taiwan, which Russia and China respectively consider as belonging to them. Both countries use rhetoric that denies the right of peoples to self-determination, instrumentalizes history, and legitimizes security. Lu Shaye indeed affirmed that „China’s sovereignty and integrity have been threatened by secessionist forces seeking Taiwan’s independence,” and that China can resort to „all means” to achieve „the goal of reunification of the motherland,” using historical arguments claiming that „Taiwan has been part of Chinese territory since ancient times.”[xv] China and Russia thus appear as two imperialist powers threatening global security.
Manon Boscher, External Contributor
[i] Interview with the Chinese ambassador to France by Darius Rochebin, LCI (the news channel), April 21, 2023 https://www.tf1info.fr/international/guerre-en-ukraine-paris-fera-des-mises-au-point-tres-fermes-a-l-ambassadeur-de-chine-apres-ses-propos-sur-lci-2255062.html
[ii] Le Monde with AFP, „Chinese ambassador’s controversial remarks on Crimea: Kiev denounces an „absurd version” of history, Paris condemns » April 23, 2023 https://www.lemonde.fr/international/article/2023/04/23/propos-polemiques-de-l-ambassadeur-chinois-sur-la-crimee-kiev-denonce-une-version-absurde-de-l-histoire-paris-condamne-aussi_6170725_3210.html
[iii] Hugues Maillot, „War in Ukraine: Paris calls on Chinese ambassador to remain „consistent with the official positions” of Beijing” April 24, 2023 https://www.lefigaro.fr/flash-actu/l-ambassadeur-de-chine-en-france-convoque-par-le-quai-d-orsay-apres-ses-propos-sur-l-ukraine-20230424
[iv] Ouest France with AFP, „The Chinese ambassador to France summoned to the Quai d’Orsay: we explain the controversy” April 24, 2023 https://www.ouest-france.fr/monde/chine/lambassadeur-de-chine-en-france-convoque-au-quai-dorsay-on-vous-explique-la-polemique-a727dcfc-e271-11ed-b514-8dd13d8be671
[v] Interview with the Chinese ambassador to France by Darius Rochebin, LCI (the news channel), April 21, 2023 https://www.tf1info.fr/international/guerre-en-ukraine-paris-fera-des-mises-au-point-tres-fermes-a-l-ambassadeur-de-chine-apres-ses-propos-sur-lci-2255062.html
[vi] Le Monde „Ms. Colonna, we ask you to declare the Chinese ambassador Lu Shaye persona non grata„ parliamentarians of the European union, April 23, 2023 https://www.lemonde.fr/idees/article/2023/04/23/madame-colonna-nous-vous-demandons-de-declarer-l-ambassadeur-de-chine-lu-shaye-persona-non-grata_6170710_3232.html
[vii] Le Monde with AFP, „Chinese ambassador’s controversial remarks on Crimea: Kiev denounces an „absurd version” of history, Paris condemns » April 23, 2023 https://www.lemonde.fr/international/article/2023/04/23/propos-polemiques-de-l-ambassadeur-chinois-sur-la-crimee-kiev-denonce-une-version-absurde-de-l-histoire-paris-condamne-aussi_6170725_3210.html
[viii] Ouest France with AFP, „The Chinese ambassador to France summoned to the Quai d’Orsay: we explain the controversy” April 24, 2023 https://www.ouest-france.fr/monde/chine/lambassadeur-de-chine-en-france-convoque-au-quai-dorsay-on-vous-explique-la-polemique-a727dcfc-e271-11ed-b514-8dd13d8be671
[ix] Le Monde with AFP and Reuters, „After the remarks of its ambassador in France, China assures respect for the sovereignty of Ukraine and the countries of the former USSR„, April 24, 2023 https://www.lemonde.fr/international/article/2023/04/24/ukraine-apres-les-propos-de-lu-shaye-la-chine-assure-respecter-la-souverainete-des-pays-de-l-ex-urss_6170794_3210.html
[x] Statement by the spokesperson of the Chinese Embassy in France, April 24, 2023 http://fr.china-embassy.gov.cn/fra/zfzj/202304/t20230424_11064824.htm
[xi] Le Monde with AFP and Reuters, „After the remarks of its ambassador in France, China assures respect for the sovereignty of Ukraine and the countries of the former USSR„, April 24, 2023 https://www.lemonde.fr/international/article/2023/04/24/ukraine-apres-les-propos-de-lu-shaye-la-chine-assure-respecter-la-souverainete-des-pays-de-l-ex-urss_6170794_3210.html
[xii] Interview with the Chinese ambassador to France by Darius Rochebin, LCI (the news channel), April 21, 2023 https://www.tf1info.fr/international/guerre-en-ukraine-paris-fera-des-mises-au-point-tres-fermes-a-l-ambassadeur-de-chine-apres-ses-propos-sur-lci-2255062.html
[xiii] Le Monde with AFP, „Xi Jinping and Volodymyr Zelensky met for the first time since the war in Ukraine began„, April 26, 2023 https://www.lemonde.fr/international/article/2023/04/26/xi-jinping-et-volodymyr-zelensky-se-sont-entretenus-pour-la-premiere-fois-depuis-le-debut-de-la-guerre-en-ukraine_6171150_3210.html
[xiv] Thomas GOMART, guest in „Un Œil sur le Monde” on LCI, „Thomas Gomart: „We have the impression that China and Russia are experiencing forms of totalitarian relapse” IFRI, April 24, 2023 https://www.ifri.org/fr/espace-media/lifri-medias/thomas-gomart-limpression-chine-russie-connaissent-formes-de-rechutes
[xv] Interview with the Chinese ambassador to France by Darius Rochebin, LCI (the news channel), April 21, 2023 https://www.tf1info.fr/international/guerre-en-ukraine-paris-fera-des-mises-au-point-tres-fermes-a-l-ambassadeur-de-chine-apres-ses-propos-sur-lci-2255062.html