China respects the status of former Soviet member states as sovereign nations, its foreign ministry said on Monday, after comments by its envoy to Paris triggered an uproar among European capitals.
Several EU foreign ministers had said earlier that comments by ambassador Lu Shaye - in which he appeared to question the sovereignty of Ukraine and other former Soviet states - were unacceptable and had asked Beijing to clarify its stance.
Asked about his position on whether Crimea was part of Ukraine or not, Lu said in an interview aired on French TV on Friday that historically it was part of Russia and had been offered to Ukraine by former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.
"These ex-USSR countries don't have actual status in international law because there is no international agreement to materialize their sovereign status," Lu added.
Lu has earned himself a reputation as one of China's "wolf warrior" diplomats, so called for their hawkish and abrasive style.
His latest comments were "totally unacceptable", Czech foreign minister Jan Lipavsky told reporters ahead of a Luxembourg meeting of EU foreign ministers. "I hope the bosses of this ambassador will make these things straight."
Several other EU ministers also called the comments unacceptable, and Lithuanian foreign minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said the three Baltic countries - all formerly part of the Soviet Union - would summon Chinese representatives to officially ask for clarification and check if its position had changed.
Luxembourg's foreign minister Jean Asselborn called Lu's remarks a "blunder" and said efforts were being made to calm things down.
'Objective and impartial'
Asked if Lu's stance represented China's official position, China's foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said that Beijing respected the status of the former Soviet member states as sovereign nations following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Mao told a regular news briefing that it was her remarks on sovereignty that represented China's official government stance.
Her statement appeared to be an effort to distance Beijing from Lu's comments and ease the tension with Brussels.
China has been "objective and impartial" on issues of sovereignty, she said.
A French official said a "very firm" discussion would take place with the Chinese ambassador at the French foreign ministry later on Monday.
Lu has been summoned to the foreign ministry several times in the past, including for suggesting France was abandoning old people in nursing homes during the Covid-19 pandemic and for calling a respected China scholar at a French think-tank a "mad hyena".
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said that the 27-nation bloc would, at Monday's meeting "assess and recalibrate strategy towards China", and that Lu's comments would be part of the discussion.
"We will have to continue discussions about China, it is one of the most important issues of our foreign policy," he said.
EU leaders would discuss the bloc's stance towards China and its future relations with Beijing during their next summit in June, EU Council oresident Charles Michel said.