When Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Helsinki on the occasion of Finland’s 100th year of independence in 2017, the jubilant mood was reflected on the faces of local and Chinese guests. Xi lauded the “enduring friendship” between Finland and China, which he said set an “example for peaceful co-existence and friendly exchanges between two countries.” The visit culminated in the establishment of “a future-oriented new-type cooperative partnership“ between the two states, and was promptly followed – not coincidentally – by the delivery of two pandas to the Ähtäri Zoo.
Throughout the post-Cold War era, Sino-Finnish relations have displayed pragmatic positivity. Finland has remained sensitive toward China’s self-defined “core interests,” while Chinese policy toward Finland has demonstrated reciprocal moderation, refraining from “wolf warrior” style antics. In contrast to neighboring Sweden, where journalists and scholars are constantly harassed by Chinese officials, the Chinese Embassy in Finland maintains a passive and low profile. In place of threatening “enemies” with “shotguns,” as China’s former ambassador to Sweden did, the embassy in Helsinki invites Finnish political and business elites into networking events co-organized with Finnish parliamentarians.
The pragmatic status quo has allowed economic relations to flourish, making Finland, more than many other European states, economically integrated with China.
The jubilance in Sino-Finnish relations, however, might have peaked during Xi’s visit. In October 2017, Xi first launched his “new era” political program, leading Chinese foreign policy to take an assertive turn. Coercive diplomacy and “grey zone” influence operations have increased everywhere. In addition, Beijing has crushed democracy in Hong Kong, waged “cultural genocide” in Xinjiang, and intensified military harassment of Taiwan. Taken together, the “new era” policies have tarnished China’s image in the West. A recent report even describes the year 2017 as a Machiavellian moment, after which China has decided it is perhaps better to be feared than loved.
China’s influence activities have also intensified in Finland. Beginning in the spring of 2020, Finnish media has reported on various Chinese intelligence and influence activities not in line with “friendly exchanges and peaceful co-existence.” These have ranged from typical “United Front”-style operations using diaspora organizations to careful information operations and harassment of refugees.
Notable, but separate, cases include a Chinese PLA general being invited incognito to the Finnish Parliament and a large-scale cyberattack targeting the same institution. In the former case, a Finnish member of Parliament in connection with a Chinese state-funded company orchestrated the invite. In the latter, the Finnish Security Intelligence Service (FSIS), in a clear break with the past, revealed the attack to be of Chinese origin.
The End of an Era
Following these trends, the Finnish discourse on China has taken a harder turn. Almost all aspects of Chinese engagement have come under increasing scrutiny by the Finnish media, but a subtler change is developing also within official circles. This can be observed in the tone of recent government reports on Finnish foreign and security policy.
In contrast to its straight-talking neighbors in Sweden or in the Baltic countries, Finnish official strategic communication tends to be laconic, or, as described by one analyst, “more prone to keeping things under wraps.” Yet, seen through the culture of sensitivity, a clear change has occurred in how China-Finland relations are framed.
A 2016 government report on foreign and security policy envisioned Finland intensifying relations with China and promoting “increased Sino-EU cooperation in the EU.” In contrast, a more recent 2020 report emphasized situational awareness and recognized China as an “economic competitor and a systemic rival” in line with the definition of the European Commission.
A similar change can be found within the official governmental action plans on China. An earlier plan, published in 2010, praised economic opportunities and found risks merely in China’s domestic society, touching Finland only indirectly through their economic ripple effects.
A new plan, published in 2021, begins by describing cordial relations, but overall adopts a much darker tone. The current formulation frames bilateral relations more through risks, ranging from strategic dependencies to systematic intelligence and influence activities. Instead of a partner offering boundless opportunities, China is now rather seen as a self-interested actor exploiting vulnerabilities in democratic market economies.
The development of China-critical discourse can be observed also in the publications of state security organizations. While the 2017 government defense report did not mention China at all, the 2021 report notes a growing concern on “the potential effects of China’s influencing methods on the security of the target countries,” indicating an increased concern toward China within the Ministry of Defense as well.
Earlier, in its 2018 report, the Finnish civil security and intelligence service (FSIS) elevated China to the status of major intelligence actor in Finland. Since then, China, alongside Russia, has constantly been defined as “dominating … espionage while jeopardizing Finland’s national security” in the service’s laconic national security overviews. FSIS has been active in maintaining situational awareness on China by repeatedly warning Finnish companies about possible security concerns with their Chinese counterparts, as well as speaking to academic institutions on espionage.
Although the changes in wording may appear subtle, they highlight a clear turn away from the earlier, pre-2017 discourse of optimism, limitless cooperation and pragmatic reciprocal goodwill. Changes have not remained solely on the level of rhetoric, as Finland has joined EU-wide and transatlantic coalitions in condemning and sanctioning China’s violations of human rights and international law. Finland also suspended its extradition agreement with Hong Kong in 2020, in line with other European governments, evoking a rare warning from the Chinese embassy for Finland to not interfere in China’s internal affairs.
What Does the Future Hold?
To summarize the above, after 2017 a considerable change has taken place in how China is perceived in Finland.
First, a shift took place from the pre-2017 discourse of cooperation and opportunities to a more realist and vigilant stance on China. In effect, the veil of harmonious “win-win rhetoric” has been lifted in favor of a more cynical view of Beijing as a self-interested actor exploiting systemic vulnerabilities of liberal democracies and their open economies.
Second, in addition to emphasizing China-related security issues, after 2017 Finnish official foreign policy statements have shifted to increasingly underline Finland’s status as a member of the European Union. Such statements highlighted that Finnish policy should develop in tandem with the Union´s “uniform and consistent China policy” and seek cooperation with other “like minded countries.”
These developments should be seen within a larger, evolving trend, in which Finland is engaging with the geopolitical West. For Finland, the geopolitical situation took a sharper turn after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. At the time, Russia’s unpredictable behavior rapidly pushed Finland toward deeper security cooperation with both NATO and the United States – to such a degree that today Finland, though not a member, is often argued to be quite compatible with NATO and a member in all but name. Russia’s recent military buildup near Ukraine has further increased Finnish support for NATO membership.
The more assertive stance of Beijing, although different in many ways, seems to be generating an analogous effect, and China’s recent alignment with Russia is not helping. This moves Finland closer to European and transatlantic security communities on handling China.
China-Finland relations have, for long, been seen by Beijing as an exemplary model relationship, standing the test of time amid diplomatic turbulence. It remains to be seen whether it will also stand the test of Xi Jinping’s “new era” of assertive foreign policy.