European officials are gearing up for talks on how to deal with China after a series of controvertial events.
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China said Monday it respects the independency of former Soviet nations after remarks by its ambassador in France were deemed “unacceptable” in Europe.
It comes as the 27 members of the European Union reassess their diplomatic and economic relationship with Beijing.
Lu Shaye, China’s ambassador to France, told French media on Friday that countries formerly part of the Soviet Union lacked status in international law. A transcript with the ambassadors remarks was removed by the Chinese embassy on Monday morning.
The comment sparked criticism in several European capitals, particularly in the Baltic nations, which broke free from the USSR after it collapsed in 1991.
“We are not ex-Soviet countries. We are countries that were illegally occupied by the Soviet Union,” Lithuania Foreign Affairs Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis told reporters in Luxembourg.
That sentiment was echoed by Estonian Foreign Affairs Minister Margus Tsahkna, “We are an independent country, member of the EU, of NATO. I hope there will be an explanation.”
Speaking also in Luxembourg, Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavsky said the comments of the Chinese ambassador were “totally unacceptable.”
“We are denouncing such statement and we hope the bosses of this ambassador will make things straight,” Lipavsky said.
It was within this context, that the spokesperson for the Chinese foreign affairs ministry, Mao Ning, said Monday, “China respects the status of the former Soviet republics as sovereign countries after the Soviet Union’s dissolution.”
This is just the latest episode in a series of controversial events between China and the European Union.
Returning from a visit to China earlier this month, French President Emmanuel Macron said the EU needs to have its own policy on Taiwan and to avoid following the U.S. agenda on the matter. He later added that being allies does not mean being vassals, reinforcing the idea of an independent EU policy.
Macron’s intervention was criticized in the U.S., but also in Germany and other European nations. Overall, some EU countries are afraid of clashing with the United States, particularly given its critical role on security and defense.
Macron’s comments also exposed a divide within the EU about what sort of relationship the bloc wants with China. Some are afraid of antagonizing China and endangering deep economic ties, while others favor the transatlantic alliance.
The subject will be debated among the 27 heads of state, including Macron and Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz, at a meeting in June.
“We will reassess and recalibrate our strategy towards China,” the EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, said Monday.
However, this is likely to be a long and hard discussion and it remains to be seen whether the bloc will be united on the matter.
In 2022, China was the largest source of EU imports and the third-largest buyer of EU goods, highlighting the economic importance that Beijing has for Europe. This is particularly relevant when economic growth in the EU is vulnerable to the ongoing war in Ukraine.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in March that China is a systemic rival, an economic competitor and a strategic partner. This then applies differently to various policies. For instance, for climate matters, the EU believes China can be a strategic partner; but when it comes to providing market access, the bloc complains that Beijing is a competitor.
However, combining all of these different dynamics could be hard to achieve.
“Managing this relationship and having an open and frank exchange with our Chinese counterparts is a key part of what I would call the de-risking through diplomacy of our relations with China,” von der Leyen said ahead of a trip to Beijing.
“We will never be shy in raising the deeply concerning issues I have already set out. But I believe we must leave space for a discussion on a more ambitious partnership and on how we can make competition fairer and more disciplined,” she added.
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