The U.S. presidential election campaign, particularly as it entered its final months, sucked up much of the oxygen in the news universe, meaning that a number of small international developments that might have otherwise drawn greater attention escaped notice. Under normal circumstances, the issues that had been overlooked would have gotten a closer look once the election was decided. But because of the breathless coverage of the David Petraeus scandal last month, since replaced by the 24/7 focus on whether the United States is about to plunge over the fiscal cliff, that has not happened. But one development in particular warrants attention.
Last month, Gordon Chang, writing at National Review, alerted his readers to a “technical” stopover made by outgoing Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao this past June at Lajes airport, a facility jointly run by the United States and Portugal, located on the island of Terceira in the Azores. The airbase, once a linchpin of American power projection to the European and Mediterranean theaters, has become less essential today due to technological advances and Europe’s long-established peace. As a result, the United States, facing the pressures of fiscal austerity and beginning to contemplate the practical impact that the Asia pivot will have on how and where the U.S. positions its military forces, has announced that it will reduce its personnel at Lajes to 10 percent of current levels by the summer of 2014. Not surprisingly, Portuguese Foreign Minister Paulo Portas has stated that he intends to raise the matter with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this week as they gather in Brussels for the NATO foreign ministers' summit.
For now, Wen’s unofficial stopover in the Azores says more about China’s desire to establish some sort of presence in the critical Atlantic sea lanes of communication than about debt-ridden Portugal’s desire to enter into any basing deals with Beijing. But that could change. As Patrick Cronin, an Asia specialist with the Center for a New American Security, noted, Europe’s current financial straits could make it harder for the Portuguese, as well as other U.S. allies, to resist offers from cash-flush Beijing that would soften the impact of American downsizing at Lajes and similar facilities elsewhere in the Euro-Atlantic theater.