The Chinese Ambassador to France, Lu Shaye, questioned the sovereignty of the former Soviet Union during an interview on French television. The diplomat’s words provoked a harsh reaction and prompted China to issue an official statement. What is known about the situation is in the summary by

The crux of the scandal

On 21 April, Lu Shaye gave an interview to the French TV channel La Chaîne Info (LCI) in which he questioned the sovereignty of the former USSR countries and Crimea’s belonging to Ukraine.

On air, host Darius Rochebin asked the diplomat whether Crimea (the peninsula temporarily occupied by Russia since 2014 — editor’s note) was part of Ukraine. To this, Lu Shaye responded: “It depends on how you look at this question. There is a history. Crimea has belonged to Russia from the very beginning. It was Khrushchev who gave Crimea to Ukraine during the Soviet Union” (quoted by TF1 Info).

In response to a journalist saying that international law considers Crimea as Ukraine’s territory, the Ambassador said that even the states of the former Soviet Union “do not have a valid status” in international law because “there is no international agreement that would enshrine their status as sovereign countries”.

For the record, the USSR officially ceased to exist on 26 December 1991. All 15 of the former Soviet republics had by then declared independence. Each of the countries subsequently received international legal recognition from the international community and was admitted to the United Nations. No separate international agreement was required to recognize their sovereign status.

How has the international community reacted?

The words of the Chinese ambassador caused a strong reaction both in former Soviet countries and in the European Union.

Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia summoned the Chinese diplomatic representatives to demand an explanation and to express their protest. Ukraine, France, Germany and a number of other European countries have also criticized Lu Shaye’s remarks.

Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics called Lu Shaye’s comment “totally unacceptable”. “We expect clarification from the Chinese side and a full refutation of this statement,” the diplomat added.

“Lithuania did not join the USSR. Moscow illegally occupied our territory, so we resisted until we regained our independence and the Red Army returned home. We are not post-Soviet, and we have never been Soviet,” said Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis.

“The comments by the representative of China about independent and sovereign states are false and represent a misinterpretation of history. Under international law, the Baltic States have been sovereign since 1918, but were occupied [by the Soviet Union] for 50 years,” Estonian Foreign Minister Margus Zahkna wrote.

Ukrainian ambassador to France Vadym Omelchenko said Lu Shaye’s words contradicted China’s official position. “There is no room for ambiguity here. Crimea is Ukraine. The Soviet empire no longer exists. History continues,” he stressed.

“All post-Soviet countries have a clear sovereign status enshrined in international law… It is strange to hear an absurd version of 'Crimea's history' from the representative of a country that is sensitive about its thousand-year history. If you want to be a major political player, do not repeat the propaganda of Russian outsiders…,” Mykhaylo Podolyak, adviser to the head of the Ukrainian Presidential Office, wrote.

The French Foreign Ministry declared“full solidarity” with all the countries affected by Lu Shaye’s remarks, and called on China to clarify whether the comments reflected the country’s position.

Beijing was also urged to give clarification by Germany. “We expect China to unambiguously explain its position. The sovereignty and territorial integrity of these states are inviolable,” German Foreign Ministry spokesman Christian Wagner said.

EU diplomatic chief Josep Borrell also described the Chinese Ambassador’s statements as unacceptable. “The EU can only assume that these statements do not reflect official Chinese policy,” he said.

Members of the European Parliament signed an open letter to French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna demanding that Lu Shaye be declared persona non grata.

“The Ambassador’s words are not only a profound insult to the history, culture and principled integrity of the nations concerned, but they also seek to undermine the basic principles on which predictable diplomatic relations depend. China or any other country has no right to question the sovereignty of others. Sovereignty is not a diplomatic toy, but an integral part of international relations, international law and the UN Charter,” the letter said.

Of the Central Asian countries, only Kazakhstan has spoken officially on the issue. Kazakh Foreign Ministry spokesman Aibek Smadiyarov said Kazakhstan will not send a note to the Chinese Foreign Ministry. He stressed that China was one of the first to recognize Kazakhstan’s sovereignty and urged “not to twist [the Ambassador’s] words and take it out on a completely different subject”.

Uzbek Ambassador to France Sardor Rustamboyev, in comments to reporters in Paris, said he had not seen the Chinese Ambassador’s statement at the time and that it should be studied first before reacting. “We need to study it well. It is possible that the Chinese side’s words were misinterpreted”, he said.

China’s response

“China respects the status of former Soviet republics as sovereign states formed after the collapse of the Soviet Union,” said Mao Ning, a Chinese Foreign Ministry official.

“After the collapse of the Soviet Union, China was one of the first countries to establish diplomatic relations with the countries concerned,” she added.

The Chinese Embassy in France issued a statement saying the Ambassador’s remarks “were not a statement of policy, but an expression of personal views”. It said that China’s position on Ukraine is “consistent and clear” and Beijing is ready “to contribute to the political settlement of the Ukrainian crisis”.

The recording of the Ambassador’s interview in French and Chinese has also disappeared from the Embassy’s official social media accounts.