The nine islands of the Portuguese archipelago, the Azores, span over 1,500 kilometres. The area is regarded as one of strategic significance, being both the most westerly land in the Atlantic Ocean, as well as a centuries-old shipping hub.
Early in September, China expressed interest in the storage facilities at the Lajes Air Base on the island of Terceira, which is currently under lease to the US Air Force but mostly remains unused. The formerly designated military airport – boasting one of the largest runways in Europe, capable of supporting strategic bombers and heavy-lift craft – was certified for use by civil aviation in 2018.
The Chinese reportedly plan to install a business centre at the facility to act as a hub for goods from their country, allowing for easier distribution to Europe, Africa, and the Americas.
Interest in the Azores goes back as far as 2016, though Beijing has made their intent more apparent as of late, with Prime Minister Li Keqiang recently making a two day “technical stop” at the airport on Terceira while on route home from Cuba. President Xi Jinping also visited the island after returning from a visit to Chile.
Portuguese daily newspaper Correio da Manha reported that at the present time, the Chinese seek to gauge Portugal’s amenability to the idea. If the countries were to strike a deal, China’s commercial presence in the western-Atlantic seaboard region would see a major upsurge.
China’s Advantage in the Atlantic
China’s interest comes along with a commensurate decrease in American presence at the base, from a cold-war high of 3,000 to a current staffing of just a few hundred. The economy of Terceira has felt the impact hard, with US military presence having made a fundamental contribution to local businesses over the decades.
The greatest resistance to any increase of the Asian country’s presence in the Atlantic would come from the United States, who could lean on Portugal as a NATO ally to resist any moves by the Chinese in the Azores. Prime Minister Antonio Costa has said that if America did not “renew its agreement of exclusivity”, then China could make their overtures. The US is also in the midst of a trade war with China and could be loathe to cede anything that might symbolise a win for the Beijing administration.
Rollback of the American presence in the Atlantic is opposed by more conservative elements in Washington. “Should the Chinese establish a logistical base in the mid-Atlantic, future historians will scratch their heads at such American shortsightedness”, said Michael Rubin of the conservative think-tank, the American Enterprise Institute.
This was echoed by Devin Nunes of the House Intelligence Committee who warned in a letter to the US Defence Department that the Chinese aim of creating a logistical base in the Atlantic “could ultimately be expanded for other military purposes”.
Portugal has sought to downplay any notion of military involvement on the islands. Costa has stressed that China’s use of Terceira would not be for military purposes, and Foreign Minister Santos Silva reiterated that “Portugal’s only interest is that the base is used fully under the Defence and Cooperation Agreement that we have with the United States.”
There are over 40 major Chinese companies, such as telecoms giant Huawei, operating in Portugal, which gives the country an undeniably strong interest in maintaining good relations. Beijing’s investment in the EU state between 2010 and 2015 amounted to over 5.5 billion euros.
Earlier this year, Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa signed a ‘Memorandum of Understanding’ with President Xi Jinping in Beijing, which means that the two nations hold regular bilateral discussions on areas of mutual interest that could further deepen economic and political cooperation. President de Sousa said that the agreement means Portugal can enjoy a “political relationship with China at the level of countries like France or the United Kingdom”.