China Could Use Europe's Financial Crisis to Get Foothold in Atlantic

The U.S. may not be able to count on NATO allies strapped for cash, expert says.

China's Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and his Portuguese counterpart Jose Socrates, Dec. 9 2005, stand in front of an honour guard at Queluz Palace outside Lisbon.
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While Washington orchestrates America's "pivot to Asia," the Chinese are already looking at taking over facilities much closer to U.S. shores, according to one report.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's "technical" stop at Terceria — an island in the Azores — this summer indicates the increasingly global country is considering stepping into a U.S. airbase there, according to the National Review. A Chinese installation could replace facilities downsized by the Department of Defense on the islands, an autonomous region that is a part of Portugal.

Though this would pose a significant economic and security threat, the Navy's top officer believes bureaucracy and allegiance would intervene.

"I wouldn't connect those two directly," said Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert of the DoD reductions and Jiabao's visit.

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"It would really be about what [Portugal] wants to do with the Chinese," he says. "Remember, you're dealing with a NATO country. That's an upstream swim."

But one expert believes the current state of world affairs could create just the window the Chinese would need to create a presence on the Atlantic islands, which played a critical role during World War II and are closer to New York City than Pearl Harbor is to Los Angeles.

Europe is in the midst of an intense financial struggle. That means old allegiances might give way to the highest bidder, says Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.

Support from a NATO ally "is not necessarily locked in for the long term when you consider the massive change underway in Europe, when you consider the potential investment that's badly needed," says Cronin.

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"Even allies like Portugal are going to be very tempted to see if they can't benefit from China's rise on the hope that the U.S. will be able to fend for itself," he says. "Everyone is also counting on the U.S. to provide global stability.

"There's a contradiction and a tension, and I think those tensions are going to grow."

The U.S. has focused recently on shoring up support among allies in the Pacific Rim. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited countries in that region this week, including South Korea, Singapore and Australia.

The U.S. Navy is also currently reassessing where it places its ships. Roughly half of them will now patrol the Pacific, Greenert says, with many based in Asian or Australian ports.

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China's international moves don't have to mean anything ominous, Cronin says, but China has a "two-level game going on."

"They want to play by the rules, but there's a big part of the Chinese establishment, including the military, which is looking to pick up strategic assets," he says.

China has already begun efforts to broaden its influence closer to the U.S. and other Western powers. It is exploring investing in sparsely populated Greenland—a Dutch protectorate—in the Caribbean and in Australian telecommunications.

It has exerted its naval power on its immediate neighbors, including seeking to control fisheries and crude oil deposits in the South China Sea. It has also squared off against the Japanese navy over disputed islands in the East China Sea.

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They see themselves as a global exporting power," Cronin says. "They want to start exercising that power. Some would exercise it very responsibly, others want to guard against a world aimed at hemming China in."

The U.S. will see much more frequent Chinese shipping in the Atlantic and exploratory missions to the Azores in years to come, he says, though this leading to an all-out war is unlikely.

"It is hard to contemplate," says Cronin. "It's hard to figure out how either side would benefit from that."

"There's a balance of power being played out here" in moves and countermoves, he says. "None of this is decided. It's a long game."