China's position on Russia's war in Ukraine made headlines twice last week. The first newsworthy event occurred when China's Ambassador to Paris Lu Shaye claimed that Crimea was rightfully Russian. Lu furthermore impugned the sovereignty of the former Soviet Republics that had achieved their independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Lu remarked: "Even these ex-Soviet countries don't have an effective status in international law because there was no international agreement to materialize their status as sovereign countries".This provoked a firestorm of condemnation not only by the immediately affected states but throughout the entire European Union. Although China sought to distance itself from its envoy's remarks and had its Paris Embassy spokesperson explain that these were personal remarks uttered in a TV debate and affirm that Beijing fully respected the sovereignty of the former Soviet republics, the negative impression remained. Coincidentally, Chinese President Xi Jinping called Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky for the first time since the start of the Russo-Ukrainian war. Some interpreted the call as a sort of apology for the envoy's "misstatement" and an attempt to appease Europe.
Though the events may indeed be interrelated, the present MEMRI report will only address the Russian reactions to the recent remarks made by China's ambassadors.
China's Ambassador to France Lu Shaye (Source: Iz.ru)
Senior Russian commentators were mostly in agreement about the fact that seasoned Chinese ambassadors do not make personal remarks and that their words reflect official policy and have a specific motive behind them.
Political scientist George Bovt did not believe that Lu Shaye was merely expressing his personal views: "Beijing did respond. It seemed to disavow the words of its ambassador and the interview itself was removed from the embassy's official website. But the retraction was made in a most bland and nebulous fashion. And considering the Chinese bureaucratic culture of following the 'party line' in everything, the ambassador could hardly have allowed himself such an impermissible 'heresy' compared to what they [the CCP] really think about the post-Soviet states in Beijing. In this respect, the reservation about Crimea may not have been uttered by accident but may reflect to some extent what the Chinese leadership actually thinks about the issue."
Nikolai Topornin, Director at the Center for European Information felt that Lu was providing an historically accurate account of the situation under the Soviet Union:
"The scandalous remark is much easier to attribute to a diplomat's mistake, provided Liu was referring not to the sovereignty of today's republics, but to their former status within the Soviet Union, this version sounds even more plausible. It goes as follows: Khrushchev did not give the Crimea to another country, but to some entity called the Ukrainian SSR, which was not defined by international law at the time, so it is a moot point [...]"
Nikolai Topornin (Source: Sheynin.ru)
Alexei Maslov, Director of the Institute of Asian and African Studies at the Moscow State University also felt that the Chinese Ambassador was speaking of the historical record:
"If we were to look specifically at the French text, the Chinese ambassador has tried to present the Chinese point of view very carefully.
"First, he reiterated the usual position that Crimea was originally Russian and had been transferred by Russia to Ukraine.
"The most interesting point, which is, actually, the most controversial one is as follows: he claimed that the countries, i.e., the republics of the Soviet Union, did not have effective status as independent states.
"Connecting the first thesis to the second one, he questioned whether Crimea did in fact became part of Ukraine even after its transfer. This is a rather controversial topic in international terms. Let's look at Lu Shaye's reasoning. He, most likely, proceeds from the fact that at that time the vast majority of the republics comprising the USSR had no official representation at the UN, [thus] they were not recognized by the UN as actual states. Let me remind you that the only representatives at the UN were Russia and Belarus representatives."
Mikhail Rostovsky, senior commentator for the Russian daily Moskovsky Komsomolets, suspects that Lu's remark represented a form of retaliation for an intemperate remark by a Ukrainian official.
"The following is my suspicion (I reiterate this is just a suspicion): in order to successfully climb the career ladder at the Chinese Foreign Ministry and the CCP Central Committee since 1987, one must be an eccentric, but of a certain kind only – an eccentric, whose extravagant remarks coincide if not with the letter, then certainly with the spirit of the party line. [...]
"Recently, for example, an eccentric in the chair of the Ukrainian parliament's international committee questioned China's sovereignty over Taiwan. Previously, eccentrics from Lithuania's top leadership did the same thing for some unknown reason.
"And who better to answer eccentrics than another eccentric? The 'political arrow' fired by Ambassador Lu Shae hit the target precisely."[vi]
SUPPORT OUR WORK
Alexander Lukin, Acting Head of Research at the Institute of China and Modern Asia didn't buy the 'ambassador expressing his personal view' theory either.
"Let's start by reiterating the fact that a diplomat should not voice a stance that has not been agreed with his government. An ambassador is a representative of his country, and cannot have his own perception on principle issues, provided they contradict official ones. But both Lu Shaye and Fu Tsung are experienced diplomats, who have worked for many years at the Chinese Foreign Ministry. And the version of their unprofessionalism is hard to believe."
Lu, Lukin believes, was attempting to set the stage for a Chinese diplomatic initiative in the Russia-Ukraine conflict:
"Thus, one can assume that Lu Shaye's statement was a form of 'fishing', i.e., an attempt on the part of the Chinese side to put forward an idea to Western countries and monitor their reaction. The PRC, as we recall, recently proposed a plan for a peace settlement in Ukraine that was supported by Russia.
"The claim that Crimea has always been part of Russia and that CIS sovereignty is suspect can be readily harmonized with negotiations on Ukraine, as a starting point for the bargaining."
Aleksandr Lukin (Source: Globalaffairs.ru)
Lukin compared the tempest stirred up by Lu to the seemingly off-message remarks by China's ambassador to the EU Fu Tsung, uttered three weeks earlier. Fu then was trying to allay European fears about the joint statement released by Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping that declared that there were "no limits" to friendship between Russia and China, a declaration made three weeks before the invasion of Ukraine. Mr. Fu said China was not on Russia's side in the war and that some people "deliberately misinterpret this because there's the so-called 'limitless' friendship or relationship."
He added, "'No limit' is just rhetoric."
Mr. Fu said that China has not provided military assistance to Russia, nor recognized its efforts to annex Ukrainian territories, including Crimea and the Donbas.
Lukin wrote: "Fu Tsung's claim that the statement on limitless Sino-Russian friendship is no more than 'rhetoric' can also be interpreted in this context, i.e., in the sense that China (which greatly values relations with the EU, as its main trading partner) tried to curb the criticism from the EU at least a little bit after Xi's high-profile visit to Russia. The choice of words was unfortunate, and the Chinese Foreign Ministry later denied it. But the Chinese achieved the desired effect, in the EU, as Fu Tsung's words were received very well."
Rostovsky and Bovt also believed that then as now, the Chinese ambassador was not straying from the policy of his superiors. Rostovsky commented:
"Recently, Comrade Fu Tsung was caught in a spotlight of a scandalous diplomatic chronicle. On the eve of French President Macron's visit to Beijing earlier this month, the Russian media actively quoted Fu Tsung stating that President Xi's statements on the 'limitless friendship' between China and Russia were just a 'rhetorical tool.'
"It's encouraging to see that the PRC's ambassador to the EU has re-educated himself in the spirit of that very 'rhetorical tool.'
"Let me paraphrase Fu Tsung's interview with Chinese media published in Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post. Fu defended China's relations with Russia, which, he said, faced 'some misconceptions and prejudices' in Europe. China and Russia are each other's largest neighbors, and the task of maintaining friendly relations between Beijing and Moscow, 'is in line with the logic that history and reality follow, and with the interests of the peoples of both sides and the expectations of the international community,' argued Fu.
Fu Tsung (Source: Ria.ru)
"'We have also always believed that friendship and cooperation between the two countries is limitless and that there should be no artificial boundary,' added Fu. 'Sino-Russian cooperation has no "upper limit" just like Sino-EU cooperation.'
"Did you pay attention to the last phrase in the previous paragraph? If you haven't, by all means do. It is not another routine and meaningless 'Chinese ceremony,' but a concentrated expression of Beijing's true political course: while acknowledging the strategic futility of trying to establish relations with the U.S., the PRC, nevertheless, does not want to choose between Russia and Europe.
"To quote Fu Tsung again, 'Just as China's bilateral relations with any country, Sino-EU relations are many-sided and cannot be reduced to a single issue. Sino-EU relations are not directed at, dependent on, or subordinate to third parties, and should not be tied to the Ukrainian issue.[...] China did not create, nor is a party to, the crisis in Ukraine. China is too a victim of this crisis, and there is no reason to blame the Chinese side for the Ukrainian crisis.'
"Regarding this issue, we observe an obvious divergence between Moscow's stance and that of Beijing. In Russia, practically at an official level, Europe has already been recognized as lacking 'strategic autonomy,' and as an American satellite. The PRC disagrees with this assessment.
"But this divergence is attributed to a difference in capabilities between the two states. The time when the Kremlin could play the European card in spite of Washington has passed. In turn, for Beijing, a similar window of opportunity is still open. And since it is open, why not get into it?
"From the Chinese point of view (which is quite reasonable), if there is an opportunity to 'preserve innocence and acquire capital,' [meaning to do mutually exclusive things] then it must by all means be seized. Thus, the country uses it, while offering very meaningful hints that are immediately disavowed (but not completely)."
Lukin admits a possibility that Fu and Lu were echoing their superiors in the Chinese hierarchy, suggesting that perhaps that hierarchy is not as united as it seems.
"But there is an alternate version where both Fu Tsung and Lu Shaye, in fact, said what they were thinking. And we've heard a distant echo of the discussions that are now taking place behind the scenes in the PRC. In China, there is a pro-Western clique, which believes that without the West, China cannot develop, and an anti-Western clique, which proceeds from the assumption that a conflict will happen sooner or later, and it's necessary to prepare for it, including by building up ties with Russia.
"Naturally, we will not find out the truth now. A reaction on the part of the Chinese Foreign Ministry can lead us to one conclusion: Fu Tsung has not been dismissed for his words; he still works as ambassador to the EU. This means that either the words were sanctioned from above, or the harm from them was deemed negligible.
"Let's look now at the reaction to Lu Shaye's words. That, too, could tell us a lot."
 Fp.com, April 25, 2023.
 Fr.china-embassy.gov.cn/fra, April 25, 2023.
 Cnbc.com, April 28, 2023; Firstpost.com, April 28, 2023; Asia.nikkei.com, April 28, 2023.
 Bfm.ru, April 24, 2023.
 Bfm.ru, April 23, 2023.
 Mk.ru, April 24, 2023.
 Nytimes.com, April 5, 2023.
 Aif.ru, April 24, 2023.
 Mk.ru, April 24, 2023.
 Aif.ru, April 24, 2023.