Against a massively complicated backdrop, Portugal is getting ready to present the United States with a “new defence project” for Lajes – the airbase on the Azorean island of Terceira that the Americans threatened to pull out of two years ago.
The ‘decision’ to scale down operations prompted fears that the base could end up being ‘sold to the Chinese’ – an option that former Pentagon official Michael Rubin railed against in an article reproduced in American Newsweek.
In Rubin’s opinion: “If the United States has no presence at the base, then in a time of tension now or in the future there would be absolutely nothing stopping the Chinese from simply landing an air wing”.
Talking to Bloomberg in October last year, prime minister António Costa agreed China was interested in the base, “but not for military purposes”.
He suggested Chinese interest would be in “creating a platform for scientific research”.
But as Rubin remarked: “Let’s be clear: The Chinese government has absolutely no interest in conducting scientific research on the Azores, nor are the Chinese teams visiting the island engaged in research. Beijing would never talk about a permanent military base, but it would rebuild the local port to its military specifications (just as it did with Gwadar, Pakistan) and it would be happy to station a skeleton crew at Lajes itself”.
Thus, efforts since 2015 have been focused on trying to keep the Americans on side.
When President Trump took over from Obama earlier this year, Portuguese media reported that he and President Marcelo discussed Lajes in a 12-minute telephone call.
Nothing further was revealed, but today’s news could be the follow-up.
According to Lusa the new project centres on “questions of security throughout the Atlantic”.
Reading between the lines, the plan is to transform Lajes into trainee battleground.
Foreign affairs minister Augusto Santos Silva was in Washington this week where he discussed ideas further with US secretary of state Rex Tillerson.
Lusa exact description was “a field for air and subaquatic war exercises”.
For now, there are many more steps to go before the US sets anything in stone, or commits to the investment that will be required.
Santos Silva told reporters the Portuguese “government welcomes all the ideas that comes from the internal decision-making process of the United States in the sense of understanding the strategic relevance of Lajes airbase”.
He added that while America makes up its mind, the government will continue to try and make Lajes and Terceira island “a favourable place for the development of scientific-technological cooperation around the oceans, climate and energy”.