Finland Looks to Increasing Stake in Indo-Pacific Region

The year 2023 has seen significant developments for Finland on the global stage, setting a benchmark for going forward in 2024, a year that also starts with the Presidential elections. 

Finland’s foreign and security policy has faced “a historic turn”, as highlighted by Finland’s President, Sauli Niinistö in his New Year’s speech on January 1 itself. Russia’s war in Ukraine eventually led Finland to apply for NATO membership and become a member on April 4. Not only for Europe, but the war had repercussions in the Indo-Pacific security dynamics and the U.S.-China great-power competition. NATO has deepened its partnership with the Indo-Pacific region, and Japan and South Korea are aligning themselves more with transatlantic structures. European and Indo-Pacific security are more interlinked, with Europe having more stake in the region’s security.

Finland’s new government was inaugurated on June 20, and it is viewed as historic because it is the most right-wing government Finland has had since the 1930s and because of its strong Western orientation. The new government’s foreign policy objectives, influenced by the NATO membership and the war in Ukraine, could change the dynamics of Finland’s international cooperation. What are Finland’s objectives in the Indo-Pacific region, given the absence of a specific strategy, and what is anticipated to change with Petteri Orpo’s government and NATO membership?

Finland’s ‘Action Plan for Southeast Asia’ and the former government’s Asia Outlook

‘Action Plan for Southeast Asia’ (2015) is a medium-term plan for Finland’s regional priorities and guidelines. It highlights that Southeast Asia’s countries and ASEAN offer prospects for diverse cooperation and beneficial partnerships concerning many topical international questions recognizing the region’s rapid economic development and growing political importance. It stresses that ASEAN’s internal economic integration provides prospects and extensive growth markets for Finnish companies in the region. Finland has been committed to strengthening the rule of law and human rights, resolving cross-border problems, including human trafficking, and supporting ASEAN’s mediation capacity to resolve disputes among its member states and in the South China Sea. Finland supports ASEAN’s centrality in Southeast Asia and has an appointed Ambassador to ASEAN, Jukka-Pekka Kaihilahti. Strengthening of ASEAN-Finland relations, especially in mutual interest areas such as investment, tourism, and education, was discussed by Kaihilahti and the Secretary General of ASEAN, Dr. Kao Kim Hourn, on May 16.

The former Prime Minister Sanna Marin’s government program (2019) reflects the growing significance of Asia in world politics and the global economy, and especially distinguishes South and Southeast Asia. The Finnish Foreign and Security Policy report (2020) highlights the

bilateral relations with India and stresses that intensifying partnerships with Southeast Asian countries has a growing strategic importance for Finland. Finland endorses the EU’s Indo-Pacific Strategy and recognizes that the best way to influence is within the EU framework, identifying economic opportunities when deepening partnerships with fast-growing economies in the region. The government program emphasized the importance of Finland’s diplomatic and consular missions in South and Southeast Asia and the establishment of new partnerships focusing more on managing foreign and security policy, economic relations, development policy, and information security.

The war in Ukraine altered the security environment in Europe, and the government’s foreign policy objectives had to adjust, also impacting Finland’s priorities in Asia. Marin and Kishida Fumio, the Prime Minister of Japan, affirmed shortly after Russia’s invasion that the war in Ukraine is undermining the fundamental basis of international order. They emphasized the interdependence of European and Indo-Pacific security, and hence, Finland and Japan will work together towards a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific.’ In October 2022, Finland’s foreign and defense officials met with their Japanese counterparts in a Defense Ministerial meeting in Japan’s Ministry of Defense, promoting defense cooperation between the countries, focusing on deepening cooperation between the defense administrations and supporting Finnish defense industry companies located in Japan. The countries previously signed a defense cooperation memorandum in 2019. Nonetheless, because of Finland’s NATO membership and the global geopolitical situation, relations between the two countries are developing to a new level, resulting in growing security and defense cooperation.

Marin highlighted at the EU-ASEAN summit in December 2022 that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has also increased the importance of EU-ASEAN cooperation, and Finland recognized the strategic partnership with ASEAN supporting the efforts of practical cooperation. Furthermore, the bilateral relations with Australia and New Zealand advanced, when

Marin met with the Prime Ministers of both countries in November 2022, initiating a closer partnership with the first-ever Prime Ministerial visit to each country. The Prime Ministers discussed various issues, such as the opportunities in the green transition, energy supply, new technologies, and digital transformation, as well as the changing international security environment highlighting Indo-Pacific security, major power relations, and the necessity of strengthening cooperation with like-minded partners.

Objectives of the New Government

A new era has begun in Finland’s foreign and security policy, according to Finland’s Foreign Minister, Elina Valtonen. As stated in her interview with Nikkei Asia, Finland wants to participate more actively in international defense and security, compared to the past focus primarily on trade relations in Asia. The former government’s objectives were also more or less trade-based; however, defense and security cooperation gained more importance after Russia invaded Ukraine. As a result of the uncertain times, Finland now wants to be connected and active in global defense and is looking to build ties beyond Europe. Finland is looking at stronger security ties with Asia and is especially keen to focus more on the Indo-Pacific region with regard to defense and security cooperation. Valtonen stresses that while looking at developments in the Indo-Pacific and China, it is natural that not only NATO but also individual European countries such as Finland look in that direction.

Even though the new government objectives are West-oriented, strengthening ties with countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada, it also recognizes the importance of a new type of approach to collaborating with like-minded countries, including Australia, South Korea, and Japan in the time of geopolitical tensions resulting from the U.S.-China rivalry. China remains a question mark for Finland, and the China policy is moving within the line of EU and NATO policies; nevertheless, the approach remains milder due to Finland’s strategic dependencies on China, which Finland aims to reduce. 

The EU’s trade policy and common foreign and security policy will be critical determinants of Finland’s international relations, and the EU and NATO form the core of Finland’s cooperative foreign policy, as stated in the Foreign Ministry’s draft budget for 2024. Moreover, Finland’s objectives include preserving the international rules-based order, and the key is to cooperate with Global South countries and promote human rights and democracy. Finland will also continue promoting Finnish companies’ participation in investment projects mainly funded within the EU’s Global Gateway initiative framework.  

More Momentum on Security and Defense Cooperation

The Action Plan for Southeast Asia and the previous government program emphasized Southeast Asia’s significance for cooperation, particularly in economic relations. As a new focus in Asia, the Indo-Pacific region started to gain more importance around the time the EU launched its Indo-Pacific strategy, with Finland highlighting the importance of economic relations in the wider Indo-Pacific region. The U.S.-China rivalry and the war in Ukraine have been critical reasons why Finland added additional emphasis on cooperating in defense and security policy and strengthening bilateral ties with Indo-Pacific countries. This took off from the former government’s effort to enhance cooperation with Australia, New Zealand, India, and Japan.

Prime Minister Petteri Orpo has stressed the importance of like-minded democracies working together and showing leadership to support the international rules-based system, which is now more important than ever. Finland’s government program consequently highlights the relations with Japan, Australia, and South Korea. Security and defense gained momentum in Finland’s cooperation with Japan during the previous government, and bilateral and multilateral security and defense relations are expected to intensify further.

Finland has, over the years, cooperated in the defense sector with several countries in the Indo-Pacific region, particularly with Japan, South Korea, and India at some levels, but now the Finnish government has placed a special emphasis on possibly increasing this cooperation. Also, through Finland’s NATO membership, multilateral cooperation on security issues with NATO’s other Indo-Pacific partners is also deepening, opening more platforms for engagement. Valtonen recently emphasized that when it comes to Finland’s security and defense cooperation, bilateral as well as cooperation through NATO and the EU is worth deepening and exploring.

The upcoming years are crucial in terms of the extent to which Finland will be active in security and defense with the Indo-Pacific region. The new Finnish Foreign and Security Policy as well as the Defense report are currently being drafted and will be published during the beginning of the government term. The reports will shed more light on the basic guidelines for cooperation. However, it is safe to say that Finland is expected to move closer to Indo-Pacific security politics.