China and the Baltics

Recent Features

Interviews | Diplomacy | East Asia

China and the Baltics

Insights from Una Bērziņa-Čerenkova.

China and the Baltics
Credit: Depositphotos

The Diplomat author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Dr. Una Bērziņa-Čerenkova director of the China Studies Centre at Riga Stradins University, head of the Asia program at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs, and CHOICE fellow is the 382nd in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”

Explain China’s strategic priorities for the Baltic states: Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. 

The three Baltic states never have been a priority for China due to their territorial and economic size, as well as a lack of historical exchanges. Still, an interesting change in Chinese perception occurred during the period when the Baltic states regained statehood after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

In the 1990s and 2000s, China viewed the three Baltic states through the lens of their post-Socialist heritage, as a part of Eastern Europe. The inclusion of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania into the 16+1 format of China’s economic cooperation with Central and Eastern European countries in 2012 demonstrated that China looked at the region through the lens of South-South cooperation principles, such as infrastructure loans and scholarships, an approach conceptualized as inherently different from the one China adopted toward Western Europe.

As the rift between China and the West began to expand after 2016, however, China became more aware of the Baltic mindset and allegiances. The countries are part of NATO, the EU, the Schengen Zone, and the Eurozone, and have been striving for larger integration with the West, seeing no alternative for their security and development. The Baltic states’ approach to China has been conditioned by the wider Western and transatlantic context. Therefore, any geopolitical rapprochement that Beijing had initially hoped for was simply not an option.

Today, following the Baltic states’ withdrawal from the 16+1 format in 2022, and the overwhelming Baltic support for Ukraine after the full-scale Russian invasion, Beijing has a clearer perception that the three nations see themselves squarely as members of the transatlantic community. 

The shift in Chinese perception has also influenced the strategic priorities for the region. As the strategic priorities China had set for Central and Eastern Europe – to nurture a group of countries within the EU with an increased solidarity with China – proved to be ineffective in the Baltics, Beijing has switched to viewing the Baltics as third-tier Western European wannabes that are not economically viable for large-scale cooperation, yet vocal enough to cause reputational damage towards China. 

Analyze the Baltics’ geopolitical relevance in China-Russia relations. 

Today, as the deterioration of 16+1 cooperation has passed a point of no return, the Baltics do not hold a particular geopolitical relevance in China-Russia relations, given their distance from China. However, Beijing is not blind to Russia’s hopes to redraw the map yet again. When Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks of the lands Russia should regain and compares himself to Peter the Great, he has his eye on the Baltic states. There certainly are undercurrents in China’s foreign policy circles that do not take the sovereignty of ex-Soviet states, including the Baltics and Ukraine, seriously either, as revealed in the slip of the tongue of the Chinese ambassador to France, Lu Shaye, in a April 2023 TV appearance in which he said that ex-Soviet states “do not have effective status in international law.”

It is clear to Beijing, however, that the Baltic states have the one thing that Ukraine does not – NATO protection as per Article 5. Therefore, from China’s standpoint, a Russian attack on Baltic territory would cause even more instability that the aggression towards Ukraine already has. 

This would mean both strategic risks and opportunities for China. The risks: more disruption of global supply chains, and in the worst-case scenario, the collapse of the international system, including the U.N., or even the nightmare of a nuclear war. The opportunities: a full-on NATO-Russia standoff, which would be just what it takes to take Washington’s gaze off China for the time being. 

The debate over which calculation will prevail in Beijing, however, is moot, as currently a full-scale kinetic attack on the Baltic states would be an overstretch for Russia and remains unlikely. 

Examine Lithuania’s strong economic performance, despite China’s economic coercion towards Lithuania for Vilnius’ supportive relations with Taipei. 

The backlash of China’s secondary sanctions following Lithuania’s rapprochement with Taipei admittedly was worrisome for Vilnius, but its effects will not be long-lasting for two reasons. 

First, the EU showed strong support for Lithuania by taking China to the WTO in 2022, and agreeing on an anti-coercion instrument this year, thus showing Beijing that the bloc was determined to back its member state even if it meant a tougher stance on China. We should remember that the Lithuanian case, albeit a visible and extreme one, was not a stand-alone challenge in EU-China relations. In a way, the conflict pushed Brussels to finally admit that the economy is not an isolated topic in China-EU relations; it is fully intertwined with values and geopolitical developments.

Second, the initial assessment of Lithuanian policymakers was correct: Lithuania’s economy was not structurally over-dependent on China. The damage was caused by a targeted campaign, making it much easier for the Lithuanian economy to readjust and bounce back than it would have been if Lithuanian businesses had to undergo painful decoupling after being strongly integrated into the Chinese market for decades, which would be the case with bigger European nations.

Describe how the Baltics are engaging the Indo-Pacific region.

The Indo-Pacific is becoming an increasingly salient region in Baltic foreign policy and security outlooks. As EU member states, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are naturally involved in the larger European turn towards the Indo-Pacific. However, given their size and limited amount of resources, there are two characteristics that set the Baltic approach apart from the wider EU.

First, not all priority areas outlined in the EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific are relevant for the Baltic states; therefore, the Baltic countries also underscore directions of engagement that are realistic and immediate from the perspective of their interests. Lithuania, the only Baltic country to have published an Indo-Pacific Strategy to date, prioritizes security and resilience building and economic cooperation, as well as networking and advancing visibility. This is indicative of the wider Baltic interests in the region. 

Second, the Baltics tend to pursue a country-based approach, highlighting cooperation with individual states, including Japan, Australia, and to some extent India, rather than with the Indo-Pacific region as a whole. In this regard, there are differences between the Lithuanian approach, which has pronounced anti-China overtones, and the Latvian and Estonian ones, which still allow for some exchanges with China within a wider Western framework.

Assess the impact of the Baltics’ approach to China on EU-U.S. relations. 

The Baltic states, in contrast to certain larger Western European powers, maintain reservations about the immediate benefits of European strategic autonomy. They harbor concerns that a rapid departure from the U.S.-led security framework in Europe could have adverse implications for their national security outlook. Therefore, it is not surprising that Tallinn, Riga, and Vilnius find common ground with Washington on matters of U.S.-China policy.

Still, this Baltic transatlanticism does not amount to a dividing factor within the EU, nor does it impact U.S.-EU relations. The EU has increasingly been facing its own China challenges caused by Beijing’s push for geopolitical influence and its trade practices. The EU’s signature friendly-face approach aside, the grievances the bloc is now addressing are not that different from the ones in the U.S. 

Baltics or no Baltics, the shift in Brussels towards mitigating risks associated with China and exploring legislative mechanisms, such as the European Chips Act, the anti-coercion instrument, as well as measures for scrutinizing both outbound and inbound investments, are bound to persist.