Portugal is suddenly in a very delicate but no less important position regarding NATO and its developing attitudes to China.
The NATO 2030 report published today refers to China for the first time as a “potential military threat” to Europe.
The gist of the document is that the Alliance has to seek a more global perspective in order to counter this threat.
Indeed the document suggests NATO forge a partnership with India in the future (currently facing renewed military conflict with China) – and this is where Portugal comes in.
Portugal takes over the presidency of the EU in January, and one of the diplomatic objectives of António Costa’s government is to hold a summit in May between EU leaders and India.
In foreign policy matters, Mr Costa has called the summit, due to take place in Porto, as the jewel in the crown of the Portuguese presidency. He said recently: “It is a meeting that I consider to be of utmost importance to Europe to emphasise the importance of the relationship with the whole Indo-Pacific region”.
But at the same time, Portugal has always presented itself as more than ‘open’ to doing business with China. Multiple sectors nationally have seen intense Chinese investment; there is a considerable Chinese community already resident in Portugal and the country is the biggest ‘taker’ when it comes to the Golden Visa programme.
Hence the ‘delicate position’ – confirmed by remarks by Portugal’s permanent representative of NATO Pedro Costa Pereira who has stressed that China needs to be “framed and understood” by the organisation.
Talking to Lusa, Costa Pereira guaranteed that Portugal would remain central within NATO irrespective of any developments underway. He went so far as to say that the NATO 2030 report “doesn’t translate as NATO’s position on China”, it is “just a set of recommendations by a group of 10 experts that is part of a broader process of reflection”.
What wasn’t mentioned in a number of media reports was the situation of Portugal’s military airbase at Lajes, in the Azores – ‘home’ to the US military for decades but more recently in a state of flux due to the Americans’ decision five years ago to ‘dramatically downsize’ (click here).
Since then there has been a great deal of ‘fudging’ the issue, to the extent that there have even been suggestions the Chinese have their eyes on the base for their own purposes (click here).
Questioned specifically over Lajes by Lusa, Costa Pereira admitted that “nothing guarantees that tomorrow (the Americans) won’t return to having the same kind of interest in Lajes that they had in the past, depending on the conjuncture that presents itself. Lajes and the Azores have a fundamental strategic dimension: they are in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean; they are central to this transatlantic relationship”.
In diplomatic-speak this was as close to saying ‘the Americans better renew their interest in Lajes or things could get very dodgy indeed…’
As to the ‘messages’ coming out of the NATO 2030 report, they were stark. A key sentence being: “The scale of Chinese power and global reach poses acute challenges to open and democratic societies, particularly because of that country’s trajectory to greater authoritarianism and an expansion of its territorial ambitions”.
The South China Morning Post has reacted to the document saying: “For Beijing, the most surprising remark in the Nato report was the reference to China as a threat facing Europe… Both the EU and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation are headquartered in Brussels. All Nato members, apart from the United States and Canada, are in Europe”.
China specialist Antoine Bondaz, working for a Paris-based think tank told the paper: “
“Europe is not yet designating China as a threat… But for sure, China is becoming an issue of concern since Chinese military capacities are being displayed closer to Europe: from the Arctic to the Mediterranean Sea, as well as in cyber and space.”