All European eyes may be on Ukraine’s future these days, but this will not be the only subject at this year’s NATO summit in Vilnius on July 11–12. In fact, despite their physical proximity to the frontlines, Lithuanian authorities have announced that up to a third of the summit’s agenda would be dedicated to the Indo-Pacific.
This may look like a bold move for Lithuanian hosts, but their experience in dealing with autocracies tells them that the European and the Indo-Pacific front are interlinked. In fact, Vilnius has recently faced sharp power attacks from both Russia (via Belarus) and China in the recent past. In 2021, the Belarusian authorities, likely incited and advised by Moscow’s FSB, engineered a migrant crisis by recruiting volunteer migrants in Iraq, taking them by plane to Minsk, and then walking them through the Polish and Lithuanian border. The result was an artificial flux of refugees designed to blackmail Vilnius into backing down in its policies of support to the Belarusian opposition.
A few months later, Beijing used economic warfare to try and put Lithuania back into line after Ingrida Šimonyte’s government agreed to the opening of a Taiwanese representative office in the country. The boycott imposed by Beijing was severe and designed to inflict considerable pain. However, because the government had built economic resilience, the move only succeeded in strengthening the ties between Lithuania and Taiwan. To strengthen the resilience of both countries’ supply chains, Vilnius and Taipei reached an agreement to produce high-end chips in Lithuania—Teltonika, the Lithuanian company at the heart of the deal could be accounting for as much as 5 percent of the country’s GDP within a decade as a result.
Having been exposed to both Russian and China’s sharp power and being dangerously close to Moscow’s hard power, Lithuania understands full well that Ukraine and Taiwan are inextricably linked, and that both represent a test of strength for the international order. If one of them were to fall, autocracies would be once again on the ascendant, and the global rules-based order on which Lithuania depends for its very existence would be at threat. It seems therefore somehow logical that Lithuania would adhere to much of the U.S. establishment’s view that the rest of the twenty-first century will be dominated by a long-term struggle between autocracies and democracies. Because the Lithuanians understand the double threat posed by the Dragonbear, they are more than inclined to encourage NATO to look into the Indo-Pacific.
Dealing with Europe’s Indo-Pacific Skepticism
Not everyone agrees: France and Germany, but also others, are not so keen on tilting NATO towards the Indo-Pacific—at least not while war rages in Europe. This was the message conveyed by French president Emmanuel Macron in his infamous interview on the plane back from Beijing in April 2023, and he recently backed up his words with action by objecting to the opening of a NATO office in Tokyo, Japan. This is not that France has suddenly become a friend of China, or that it no longer supports the status quo over the Taiwan Strait. Rather, the French do not want to entangle themselves into alliances within the Indo-Pacific at a time of growing tensions. Macron knows full well that in case of a full-blown confrontation between the United States and China, the French navy would have to focus on defending its territories in the Indo-Pacific (which range from Mayotte and La Réunion in the Indian Ocean to New Caledonia and French Polynesia in the South Pacific), and could not possibly spare its resources on anything else.
But whatever the motives of Macron, he is not alone in thinking this way: most European governments worry about being drawn into direct conflict with China, and so does public opinion, apparently. A recent poll released by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) on a sample of citizens from eleven EU countries shows that 62 percent of Europeans would prefer their country to remain neutral if war were to break out between America and China—a view rather shared rather equally by a large majority in all countries studied.
This is not to say that Europeans are not worried about China—all recent polling (including that conducted by ECFR) suggests that NATO allies have shared worries about Beijing’s aspiration and its aggressive global behavior. But whereas for the United States this is a direct and perhaps even existential threat, Europeans perceive it as a much more distant problem than, say, Ukraine. Furthermore, most NATO countries close to Russia still perceive their nearer Eastern neighbor as their real, immediate, and existential threat—Finland and Sweden did not abandon neutrality for fear of Beijing but to secure their territory from potential Russian expansionism. It seems difficult at this stage to see them agreeing to NATO out-of-area operation in the Indo-Pacific, at least as long as the Russian threat endures.
Furthermore, even considering a change of hearts in Europe’s public (and elite) perceptions, and if the Europeans would more likely support the U.S. diplomatically in case of a direct armed conflict with China, their military contribution to any war effort in the Indo-Pacific would be more symbolic than of actual real value—a conflict over the Taiwan Strait would most likely be a naval affair possibly involving huge quantities of naval assets, and this is something Europeans are ill-equipped for, when they have a functioning navy at all.
In Search of a New Strategy
NATO’s raison d’être was famously described by Lord Ismay as keeping the Germans down, the Americans in, and the Russians out of Europe. The fact is that at this stage, NATO remains geographically an Atlantic alliance whose purpose is to defend Europe from outsiders. This was certainly the case for the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and this is certainly the case for Russia today. But NATO will not likely tilt its geographical scope to the Indo-Pacific—this would alter too much the identity of the alliance. Additionally, the memories of out-of-area operations (in the Middle East) are still too close and too bitter for the Europeans to subscribe to.
A NATO directly active in the Indo-Pacific is therefore a dream that would best be forgotten—at least for the foreseeable future. However, this does not mean that the alliance could not reinvent its role with regard to China; in this case, it would not be not only to keep the Chinese out, but rather far from Europe. This would tap into Europeans’ concerns about Beijing’s economic in-roads into European economies and would strategically keep the Chinese at arms’ bay in Europe’s neighborhood.
Keeping the Chinese far away could indeed be a strategy for Europe, as the former have recently made in-roads in Europe’s southern neighborhood. Not only on-land in parts of Africa and the Middle-East, but also at sea: it is not by chance that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) built its first military base outside of Chinese borders in Djibouti, the chokepoint between the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea, which itself connects the Indo-Pacific and the Mediterranean.
As Asia develops and with the land “silk roads” closed as long as Russia remains hostile to the West, the Mediterranean has returned to its strategic place as a strategic connector between East and West—much like in the days of not just the Roman but also the British empire. After all, control over the choke points between China and Europe, from Gibraltar to the Strait of Malacca (many of them in the Mediterranean), has once again become an issue, particularly given that the Mediterranean as a sea that is becoming increasingly territorialized and, indeed, contested. This explains why China has been holding joint naval operations with Russia in the recent past to increase military presence, but also why it has expressed much interest in building up an economic presence in the region. Beijing has gone on an acquisitions spree over the past decade, acquiring via its public-owned shipping company COSCO the Greek port of Piraeus in 2016, developing another port in El-Hamdania, Algeria since 2021, and eyeing the ports of Genoa, Trieste, and Taranto in Italy—a country that was lured into signing up to the Belt and Road Initiative in 2019. Of course, none of these projects have a direct military component (at least for now), but it is easy to imagine how this strategy could lead to the dual use of ports and the weaponization of commercial agreements to make headways in Europe’s southern backyard, threatening American interests north and south of the Med.
Most southern European countries are well aware of the growing Chinese presence in the Mediterranean, which they are increasingly worried about, while most Central European allies have come to understand over the years that Russia’s own disruptive strategy also goes south from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean and Africa. There would be little dissent in advocating for a NATO strategy bent on pushing the Russians and Chinese out of the southern as well as the eastern borders of Europe. And considering the crucial commercial link between the Mediterranean and the Indo-Pacific, it would be a way to involve the Europeans, via a more familiar strategic region, in America’s global strategy. For NATO, the Indo-Pacific may not be consensual, but a Med-Indo-Pacific strategy may be a key for Washington to get the Europeans moving.