China has distanced itself from the remarks of one of its envoys who questioned the sovereignty of Ukraine and other former Soviet countries.
Paris ambassador Lu Shaye’s comments last week caused widespread outrage, leading on calls to Beijing to clarify.
On Monday, China’s foreign ministry said it respected the independence of all post-Soviet republics.
China is a major ally of Russia and has not condemned President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine last year.
It sees itself as a major player in attempts to bring peace to Ukraine, but has become an increasingly important trading partner for Russia amid Western sanctions prompted by the invasion, and many in the West doubt its impartiality on the issue.
In an interview for the French LCI network last week, Ambassador Lu was asked China’s view of the status of Crimea which Russia annexed in 2014.
The interviewer argued that under international law the region was part of Ukraine.
Mr Lu responded by suggesting that the issue was not clear cut, and that countries such as Ukraine could not rely on international law to defend their sovereignty.
“Even these former Soviet countries don’t have an effective status under international law because there is no international agreement under international law to concretise their status as sovereign countries,” he said.
President Putin has frequently challenged Ukrainian independence. In a speech days before the start of Russia’s invasion last year, he denied Ukraine had any “real statehood” and said the country was an integral part of Russia’s history and culture.
On Monday Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning rejected Mr Lu’s position, saying Beijing respected the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all countries and upheld the purposes and principles of the United Nations Charter.
She said that while “the Soviet Union was a federal state and had the status of an entity of international law in its entirety in foreign affairs… this does not deny the fact that each member republic of the Soviet Union has the status of a sovereign state after the dissolution of the Soviet Union”.
Later the Chinese embassy in Paris said in a statement quoted by AFP that Mr Lu’s remarks were a personal point of view and should not be over-interpreted.
Three Baltic countries, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, have summoned China’s representatives to clarify Mr Lu’s comments.
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said, quoted by AFP, that the diplomats would be asked to explain if the Chinese position had changed on independence and reminded that “we’re not post-Soviet countries but we’re the countries that were illegally occupied by Soviet Union”.
The three countries were seized by the USSR in 1940 and only achieved independence in 1991 as it was collapsing.
Other European Union foreign ministers condemned the remarks, and were set to discuss them at a meeting of the 27-member bloc on Monday.
Ukrainian presidential aide Mykhaylo Podolyak also questioned Mr Lu’s interpretation of international law and described his take on Crimea as “absurd”.
“If you want to be a major political player, do not parrot the propaganda of Russian outsiders,” he said on Sunday.
Mr Lu has caused controversy in the past, and is known as one of the “Wolf Warriors” of Chinese diplomacy for his abrasive style.
He told French media in June 2021 that he was “honoured” to be given this title because there were so many “mad hyenas attacking China”.
He has several times been summoned by the French government to explain his remarks, including for suggesting that old people had been abandoned in care homes during the Covid-19 pandemic.