PARIS (AFP) - France, Germany and other EU nations called in Chinese ambassadors on Tuesday (March 23) to protest at sanctions imposed by Beijing targeting their citizens, as China and Europe faced off over claims of rights abuses against China's Muslim Uighur minority.
France also rebuked the Chinese envoy for unacceptable behaviour after he posted a series of tweets targeting French lawmakers and a researcher.
The diplomatic spat erupted after the EU, Britain and Canada on Monday blacklisted four former and current officials in the Xinjiang region, while Washington, which had already sanctioned two of those officials in July 2020, extended them to the two others.
The tensions come as the EU seeks to formulate a strategy on China at a time when tensions between Beijing and Washington are emerging as the world's number one geopolitical issue.
The EU and China had in December approved "in principle" a major investment pact that Brussels hopes will open up lucrative opportunities despite concerns on human rights.
Italy on Tuesday also said it would follow EU peers and summon the Chinese ambassador over Beijing's retaliatory sanctions.
"The Chinese ambassador to Rome (would be) summoned tomorrow...in relation to the sanctions imposed by Beijing on the European Union," the Italian foreign ministry said in a statement on Tuesday.
Italy was until recently seen as one of the more China-friendly in Europe, largely due to its decision in 2019 to sign up to China's flagship infrastructure development Belt and Road Initiative, despite deep suspicions of it in Washington and Brussels.
China has angrily rejected the claims of a crackdown against the Uighurs, and responded with entry bans on 10 Europeans - including five members of the European Parliament - as well as two EU bodies and two think-tanks.
In France, China's ambassador Lu Shaye took aim at French lawmakers hoping to visit Taiwan as well as Mr Antoine Bondaz, a China specialist at the Foundation for Strategic Research think-tank.
In Twitter posts, Mr Lu derided Mr Bondaz as a "little thug", a "crazed hyena" and "ideological troll" with "anti-Chinese" stances after Mr Bondaz complained about Chinese pressure on French lawmakers hoping to visit Taiwan.
China sees Taiwan as a breakaway province to be reunified, by force if necessary.
"The embassy's methods, and the tone of its public comments, were completely unacceptable and exceeded all the limits commonly accepted by any embassy in the world," a French foreign ministry official, who asked not to be named, said after Mr Lu turned up on Tuesday at the foreign ministry following the summon.
The summons had been issued on Monday, but in a breach of standard diplomatic protocol, it took some time for Mr Lu to comply with the demand.
Europe Minister Clement Beaune said earlier on Tuesday that Mr Lu had snubbed the initial request for talks, with the Chinese embassy in Paris citing scheduling issues in a Twitter post.
"Neither France nor Europe is a doormat," Minister Beaune warned on France Info radio. "When you are summoned as an ambassador, you pay a visit to the foreign ministry."
Germany, a key EU proponent of strong ties with Beijing, called in China's ambassador Wu Ken for urgent talks at the foreign ministry.
The envoy was told "that China's sanctions against European Members of Parliament, scientists and political institutions as well as non-governmental organisations represent an inappropriate escalation that unnecessarily strains ties between the EU and China", the ministry said.
In Brussels, a Belgian government source said China's ambassador was expected to attend a meeting on Tuesday over the sanctions against lawmaker Samuel Cogolati, who proposed a motion in Parliament to describe the crackdown on the Uighurs as a "genocide".
Rights groups believe that at least one million Uighurs and other mostly Muslim minorities have been incarcerated in camps in the northwestern region, where authorities are also accused of forcibly sterilising women and imposing forced labour.
China has strongly denied allegations of forced labour involving Uighurs in Xinjiang and says training programmes, work schemes and better education have helped stamp out extremism in the region.
But Beijing has repeatedly faced accusations of committing genocide from activists, some legislatures and also most notably former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo.
Lithuania's foreign ministry also summoned Beijing's envoy since one of its lawmakers was targeted by the sanctions imposed.
"China was urged to address the human rights violations instead of imposing countermeasures," it said in a statement.
And in Copenhagen, China's ambassador Feng Tie was summoned to appear at the foreign ministry after Beijing sanctioned Alliance of Democracies, a non-profit founded by Denmark's former premier and ex-Nato chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen.
Similar action was taken in Sweden, with Swedish researcher Bjorn Jerden among those sanctioned.
"Unwavering support for human rights remains unchanged, which was communicated by State Secretary Rydberg to China's ambassador today," Foreign Minister Ann Linde wrote on Twitter, calling the sanctions unacceptable.