On the heels of the recent NATO Summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, it has again become clear that this small but ardent Baltic country is emblematic of a restructuring and rebalancing of European relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and its Communist Party leadership. In 2021, Lithuania dared to allow Taiwan to name its de facto diplomatic mission in Vilnius a “representative office,” eschewing Beijing-approved language used elsewhere in the world. Earlier that year, Lithuania became the first country to leave the Chinese-led 17+1 grouping for mainly ex-Soviet nations known as Cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European Countries (China-CEEC).
With a population of just under 10 percent of the population of Beijing alone, Lithuania represents a David to the PRC’s Goliath. Part of this is due to the fact that Lithuania is not beholden economically to China; less than one percent of Lithuania’s exports go to China. This mitigates the coercive power that China can employ against Lithuania as it has done routinely against others that have “offended” it globally. As a country occupied by both Nazis and Soviets, Lithuanians still have a clear memory of the pain of living under autocratic and totalitarian rule. This collective history coupled with commercial independence from China has resulted in Lithuania being at the forefront of a growing European realpolitik vis-à-vis the PRC.
Thus, it is particularly noteworthy that the malign influence and activities of the PRC rose in prominence on the agenda of the NATO Summit hosted by Lithuania. Despite the diversity of political and economic ties, not to even mention entanglements, between NATO’s 31 sovereign members and the PRC, the Alliance was able to find consensus on historically strong language in the communique following the Summit. While previously mentioned in the 2019 and 2022 Summit Communiques as well as the 2022 NATO Strategic Concept, China was cited an unprecedented 14 times in the Vilnius Summit Communique.
This level of attention can be attributed to several factors. First and foremost, China’s continued partnership with the Russian Federation 18 months into the illegal, unjustifiable, and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine figures prominently in the Alliance’s statement. To this day, the PRC has been unwilling to condemn the flagrant violation of international law by Russia’s invasion. Plus, China continues to prop up the Russian economy by unprecedented levels of buying Russian energy resources. Moreover, reports of Chinese military assistance, whether lethal or otherwise, to Russia persist, all of which underscore European angst about China’s role in supporting Russian aggression.
Beyond NATO worries about “the deepening strategic partnership between the PRC and Russia and their mutually reinforcing attempts to undercut the rules-based international order,” the Vilnius Summit Communique included a new level of specificity in highlighting Alliance concerns about the PRC by emphasizing: “The People’s Republic of China’s stated ambitions and coercive policies challenge our interests, security, and values. The PRC employs a broad range of political, economic, and military tools to increase its global footprint and project power, while remaining opaque about its strategy, intentions, and military build-up. The PRC’s malicious hybrid and cyber operations and its confrontational rhetoric and disinformation target Allies and harm Alliance security. The PRC seeks to control key technological and industrial sectors, critical infrastructure, and strategic materials and supply chains. It uses its economic leverage to create strategic dependencies and enhance its influence. It strives to subvert the rules-based international order, including in the space, cyber and maritime domains.”
Some of the same aforementioned themes, trends, and risks were also cited, albeit perhaps in more muted tones, in the recently released, first ever German Strategy on China. The Federal Republic is but the latest European nation to publish such a strategy indicating that most of the continent is increasingly preoccupied with rebalancing, restructuring, and de-risking its relationship with the PRC.
Furthermore, all indications are that Italy will signal its intent to withdraw from China’s Belt and Road Initiative before the end of this year. In 2019, Italy became the only major Western country and the only G7 member to join BRI. During Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s recent trip to the U.S., she hinted at the pending decision stating that a country can have good relations with China without being a BRI member. Her defense minister, Guido Crosetto, went even further characterizing the earlier decision to join BRI as “wicked.” In true form, the Chinese Communist Party’s global mouthpiece, The Global Times, issued a veiled threat of consequences if Italy withdraws from BRI.
Noteworthy as well from Vilnius was the now routine participation of Indo-Pacific partners at NATO summits. Starting with last year’s NATO Summit in Madrid, the leaders of Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea have become regular participants. Their attendance heralds a confluence of security interests and democratic values that go beyond the geographic confines of the North Atlantic. In fact, it demonstrates that that security concerns in the world’s major regions are interconnected. Countries in Europe and the Indo-Pacific are increasingly troubled by the aggressive actions of China and Russia, individually, as well as of the Beijing-Moscow axis as evidenced by the recent Sino-Russian naval exercises in the Sea of Japan.
Moreover, Japan and South Korea are looking for European support to contain and mitigate against the North Korean missile and nuclear threat. To underscore the urgency, North Korea tested a long-range missile that impacted in the Sea of Japan on the first day of the Vilnius Summit. Additionally, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s visit to North Korea last week again served to underscore the nexus of malign international actors across the Eurasian land mass. Reports of North Korean ammunition supplies flowing to Russia to kill Ukrainians heighten concerns about regional security threats being intertwined.
Just prior to the Vilnius Summit, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said “What happens in the Indo-Pacific matters for NATO and what happens at NATO matters to the Indo-Pacific.” This is increasingly resonating across both relevant regions particularly as Chinese revanchism manifests itself in a multitude of forms and locations. History may very well show that Vilnius may have set the stage literally and figuratively for the recalibration of relations with the PRC beyond NATO. Now it is actually 14+1 as Estonia and Latvia have also dropped out of China-CEEC.  The Vilnius Summit Communique can be found at NATO – Official text: Vilnius Summit Communiqué issued by NATO Heads of State and Government (2023), 11-Jul.-2023.  The German Strategy on China can be found at Strategy on China of the Government of the Federal Republic of Germany (auswaertiges-amt.de).  GT Voice: Italy’s BRI decision should be made without US influence – Global Times  NATO vies Asia-Pacific partners amid divisions over outreach – EURACTIV.com