Chinese keen to use Azores airbase for ‘business centre’

China is described as “interested in installing a business centre on Lajes airbase, on the island of Terceira in the Azores”. 

The claim – made in tabloid Correio da Manhã over the weekend – “directly collides with the strategic interests of the United States of America, which, “besides having reduced its presence at the base, maintains a certain number of military there and is involved in a commercial dispute with China that could cause a world economic recession”.

According to CM, Chinese diplomatic sources made their country’s desires plain last summer, after Lajes dropped its military certification and became an ‘international airport’ (“facilitating civilian flights”).

The change sparked Chinese interest in installing a business centre. Indeed the plan is more for a kind of distribution hub for Chinese products on their way to foreign markets.

Says CM, “the abandoned US warehouses would be transformed into storage centres for goods from China. From there, they would be distributed to Europe, North and Latin America and Africa”.

The idea was floated to gauge Portugal’s willingness to take discussions further, says the paper – adding that the “unique geostrategic location” of Lajes would most certainly ensure that China’s “commercial presence in the West” was reinforced. 

As to the political effect of a Chinese foothold in European space, CM suggests there will be opposition from the United States.

The U.S. “may be on track to revert its position in respect of Lajes airbase”, adds the paper, stressing that the decision to pull out came from for president Barack Obama.

China’s interest in Lajes is nothing new.

Three years ago, Portuguese prime minister António Costa said that if America did not renew its “agreement of exclusivity” over the base, China might make its move, “but not for military purposes”.

At the time Costa appeared to be talking about some kind of scientific research centre (click here).

His words were interpreted as a way of nudging the United States into rethinking its strategy over the base, which has been vital to Terceira Island’s economy.

But intriguingly perhaps, just at the time sources in Beijing were said to be trailing their interest in the ‘abandoned Lajes warehouses’, Minister of Defence João Gomes Cravinho attended a meeting at the Pentagon where he was described as “guaranteeing that the (Portuguese) government had no interest whatsoever in handing the base to the Chinese”.

In its heydey, Lajes – located in the borough of Praia da Vitória – was a crucial military hub.

Over 1000 US personnel were stationed there, providing jobs for around 2000 local Portuguese.

But there has been controversy too, not least over the number of cases of cancer registered in the area (click here).

Last year an investigation by TVI revealed the base “may have stored nuclear waste” during the Cold War (click here).

And then of course there have been the ‘controversial activities’ at Lajes, not least the ‘rendition flights’ organised by the CIA, post-9/11, in which Portugal was branded ‘an accomplice in a campaign of global torture’ (click here).