Why Does Lithuania Need an Indo-Pacific Strategy?

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Why Does Lithuania Need an Indo-Pacific Strategy?

Several European countries have released their own Indo-Pacific strategies, but Lithuania’s stands out in using particularly strong language regarding China.

Why Does Lithuania Need an Indo-Pacific Strategy?
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Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda’s October 2023 visit to Australia brings into focus his country’s commitment to fostering deeper security, economic and person-to-person links with Australia. It also demonstrates the push in Vilnius for alliances within the Indo-Pacific. 

Lithuania’s Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS) was announced a few days before NATO’s July 2023 Vilnius summit, but attention to its implications and significance was overshadowed by the summit itself. Other European countries such as France, Germany, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Czechia have released their own Indo-Pacific strategies, as has the European Union (EU). All emphasize the need to deepen engagement in the strategically crucial region. While adhering to the “one China policy” in the document, Lithuania stands out by using particularly strong language regarding Beijing. This article examines why this is so and the significance not only for EU and NATO members, but for Indo-Pacific NATO partners Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea. 

Lithuania’s Indo-Pacific Strategy is designed in response to “global geopolitical shifts that have a direct effect on our country and the EU.” These “shifts” include Russia’s prolonged attack on Ukraine and subsequent expansion and transformation of NATO’s force posture; the China-Russia “no limits” partnership, including threats to upend the global rules-based order; and ensuing implications for NATO and its partners.  

NATO heads of state had already noted in the 2022 Madrid Summit Declaration

“We are confronted by cyber, space, hybrid and other asymmetric threats, and by the malicious use of emerging and disruptive technologies. We face systemic competition from those, including the People’s Republic of China, who challenge our interests, security, and values and seek to undermine the rules-based international order.” 

Vilnius recognizes that China has consolidated “ever-intensifying autocratic control methods domestically and is exercising an increasingly aggressive foreign policy aimed at projecting its power externally.” It also recognizes that given Lithuania’s size, distance, and economic capacity, the implementation of the strategy hinges on its “active participation in EU decision-making processes.” 

It is from recent lived experience of economic coercion that Lithuania is concerned about China’s outward expression of power and goals of its civil-military fusion strategy. This experience has highlighted the lack of instruments and institutions available to effectively respond to illegal and politically motivated economic pressure. Lithuania’s IPS thus commits it to active participation in EU decision-making around these issues by seeking to bolster and implement the European Economic Security Strategy as well as EU internal market instruments such as the Critical Raw Materials Act, the European Chips Act, the Net-Zero Industry Act and the Anti-Coercion instrument

Among the aims of the IPS is for Lithuania to “contribute to the implementation of EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific” and ensure “that the voice of the EU is unified in its relations with China as well as cooperating with the Indo-Pacific countries” while “contributing to an open EU-U.S. cooperation on this topic.” The Lithuanian IPS thus leverages its membership in the European Union and NATO, vital bilateral (such as with the U.S.) and multilateral relations, as well as the platforms of international organizations including the United Nations, World Trade Organization, and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. 

This is a strategy based on institutional connectedness, and it can make good sense for larger European powers (and the United States) to have a smaller member country speak-up on critical issues to gauge the reaction of others.

The IPS rests on these three pillars: increasing security including defense and cybersecurity along with Indo-Pacific countries, developing economic cooperation to achieve strategic diversification, and establishing soft power (people-to-people) networks in the Indo-Pacific. 

Beijing has expressed its view on such initiatives, accusing the NATO alliance generally of “smearing and lying” about China and warning against NATO’s Indo-Pacific outreach strategies. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin stated, “NATO must abandon the outdated Cold War mentality and zero-sum mindset, renounce its blind faith in military might and misguided practice of seeking absolute security, halt the dangerous attempt to destabilize Europe and the Asia-Pacific, and stop finding pretext for its continuous expansion.”  

China’s state-controlled media does not mention, however, the unsuccessful attempts by China to exert economic and diplomatic pressure on Lithuania. Nor does it cover the problematic nature of  wolf-warrior diplomacy as Beijing seeks to divert popular attention “away from its domestic issues towards external threats and rallying popular support at home by talking tough and blaming others … to avoid publicizing its policy failures.” Nor does it mention the deep and subtle costs to China of its support to Russia’s war in Ukraine. That would contradict leader Xi Jinping’s attempt to promote China as a trustworthy global leader and its “long term game” in the Indo-Pacific region. 

The Lithuanian IPS is significant in several ways. It is an example of a small nation that has withstood bullying and intimidation tactics from China, primarily related to its promotion of economic ties with Taiwan. Others have not been so successful in resisting such pressure. Although a small country, a key to success is that Lithuania is a vital member of the EU and NATO, and a close U.S. ally. 

Lithuania now seeks to develop Indo-Pacific cooperation via EU cooperation and partnerships, and through international and regional organizations such as ASEAN, the Pacific Island Forum, bilateral relations, and joint projects. Lithuania has recently opened an embassy in Australia and already has trade agreements and partnerships with Japan, South Korea, and Singapore, and has strengthened ties with Taiwan in areas of advanced technology, research, and trade. 

The Lithuanian laser industry, for instance, has a significant place in the sector of ultra-short scientific lasers and is highly advanced in new production processes and technologies such as photonics, laser technologies, and semiconductor products. Lithuania is also seeking to decrease dependence on fossil fuels and boost green transition efforts promoting the goals of the 2030 EU Climate Change and Energy Framework. These few areas alone make Lithuania’s IPS of interest to Indo-Pacific countries, especially when it comes to promoting diversification of supply chains and deepened linkages with democratic, rule-of-law-practicing Indo-Pacific states. 

Maritime security not surprisingly features in Lithuania’s IPS given shipping security and freedom of navigation are so vital to Lithuania and the entire EU. Lithuania’s Klaipeda Sea Port is one of the few northern European ports that does not freeze over in the winter and the second EU port in the Baltic region in terms of tonnage capacity. Klaipeda is mentioned as an “entry point to EU markets for Indo-Pacific countries that respect a rules-based order and the rule of law.” 

The strategy could be criticized for being light on detail and budgetary commitments; however, this IPS is a first step in Vilnius articulating its core principles, aims and objectives for connecting it to this region, and how this connectivity relates to the evolving and contested EU position related to China. The strategy is to be regularly reviewed and updated – to adapt to changing conditions – and is to be followed by a Strategy Implementation Action Plan due around the end of the year. 

In spite of the many and varied challenges, including the geographic distance involved, the development of an IPS and the desire to deepen ties with friendly nations in the Indo-Pacific region demonstrates how seriously Lithuania views the protection of its own sovereignty from hostile regimes in Russia and China. The future cannot echo the past.