Tag Archives: South Atlantic

How Peaceful Is The South Atlantic?

By W. Alejandro Sanchez

Admiral Eduardo Bacellar Leal Ferreira, commander of the Brazilian Navy, gave an interview to the Uruguayan daily El País this past December 2015. The Admiral optimistically declared that “today there is no ocean more peaceful than the South Atlantic, there are no tensions that cannot be solved. We have problems in the Malvinas [Falklands] or in the Gulf of Guinea, but there are no wars. This is the only ocean where the major powers do not have warships.” This statement is an ideal starting point for an in-depth discussion of South Atlantic geopolitics.

A Conflict-Less Ocean?

Due to space issues, we cannot discuss in detail every South Atlantic maritime conflict. Nevertheless, the Brazilian Admiral is incorrect to declare that the only regional disputes are the Falklands/Malvinas and the Gulf of Guinea. A total list includes:

  • The Falklands/Malvinas: Argentina claims these islands, currently controlled by the United Kingdom (the two countries had a brief war in 1982). In 2013, the inhabitants of the Falklands held a referendum in which they voted to remain part of the UK – Argentina does not recognize the ballot.
  • Ghana and Ivory Coast: The two countries have a dispute over offshore oil drilling along their border. The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) gave an interim ruling in 2015 but a final decision is not expected until 2017.
  • Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo: In 2014, the Angolan government attempted to redraw the maritime border with the DRC in order to gain control of some 200 additional miles. The two countries have contested their border since the 1970s.
  • Equatorial Guinea and Gabon: The two countries claim the Mbanie, Cocotiers and Congas islands since the early 1970s. It is believed that there are underwater oil reserves around those islands.

Preventing War

In spite of the aforementioned maritime disputes, Admiral Ferreira is generally correct when he praises the peacefulness of the South Atlantic. After all, the last confrontation in the region was the 1982 Falklands/Malvinas War.

Even more, war has been successfully prevented in other disputes: in 1978 Papal mediation helped avoid a war between Argentina and Chile in the Beagle Channel, where the Pacific and Atlantic oceans meet. Moreover, the dispute between Cameroon and Nigeria over the Bakassi Peninsula was solved via international ruling – in 2006 the two governments signed the “UN-backed Greentree Agreement [which set] the terms and timeframe for the implementation of the 2002 ruling of the [International Court of Justice], which transferred the Bakassi Peninsula from Nigeria to Cameroon.” The list of successfully mediated disputes could grow if ITLOS manages to resolve the Ghana-Ivory Coast issue or if the UN’s current mediation efforts between Equatorial Guinea and Gabon are fruitful. In other words there are plenty of examples that highlight the peacefulness of the South Atlantic.

Certainly, there is always the possibility of an unforeseen “X factor” that could jump-start a war. The battle over precious resources like oil is a likely reason as most of these conflicts have to do with control of maritime areas where large deposits of oil are believed to be located. In the case of Argentina, there is a high degree of patriotism over the Falklands/Malvinas themselves, but the recent discovery of new oil deposits by Rockhopper is another reason for Buenos Aires to desire control over them. This scenario is also plausible on the African side of the Atlantic. An October 2015 report by the Institute for Security Studies entitled “Why Africa must resolve its Maritime Boundary Disputes,” argues that “the location of oil fields and natural resources deposits can result in considerable complications when states unilaterally determine and apportion exploration blocks that infringe upon areas of disputed ownership by a neighboring state.”

Should other sources of state-revenue dry up, governments may become more willing to engage in a war, or at least aggressively push for negotiations, over any of the aforementioned maritime disputes.

New Navies But For What?

In a 2011 essay for Small Wars & Insurgencies, I argued that South America was involved in an arms race. The situation has changed in 2016, particularly among the South Atlantic states. For example, the Brazilian Navy continues with its ambitious programs, in spite of its economic woes, which include the construction of a nuclear-powered submarine, four Scorpene subs, and repairing its Sao Paulo carrier. Furthermore, in late 2015 Brazil purchased the multipurpose vessBahiacomoG40bememcloseABREABREel TCD Siroco from France – it has been renamed the G-40 Bahia. Nevertheless, these purchases have not made Brazil’s neighbors perceive it as a security threat, as Uruguay’s Navy has not carried out major purchases in years while Argentina has only repaired the submarine ARA San Juan and purchased four Russian vessels that will be utilized for search and rescue operations and Antarctic research. Neither Montevideo nor Buenos Aires appear to expect an invasion from the Portuguese-speaking giant.

As for the African South Atlantic states, Equatorial Guinea commissioned a frigate, the Wle Nzas, in June 2014. “This warship is the flagship of the Equatorial Guinea Navy and it will [help] to ensure security in the Gulf of Guinea,” said President Teodoro Obiang Nguema. Meanwhile Gabon has ordered two offshore patrol vessels from KERSHIP, a joint-initiatives of PIRIOU and DCNS (though a January report by DefenceWeb argues that the contract may have been deferred). As for Nigeria, it constructed the NNS Andoni in 2012; “with a speed of up to 25 knots (46km/h), this can quickly go to intercept the pirates,” said Commanding Officer Adepegba. The country also acquired a patrol vessel from China in 2014. Finally, the Angolan government announced in late 2015 that it will purchase “two fast-attack naval craft and several coastal radar and repeater station systems worth €122 million from two subsidiaries of Italy’s Finmeccanica.”

As has been discussed in various analyses, due to the general inter-state tranquility of the South Atlantic, regional navies are looking for a new raison d’etre. Protecting natural resources and non-traditional security threats are the standard reasons. Without a doubt, Africa’s West coast continues to have a major problem with piracy, including the hijacking of transport ships, so it is in the interest of regional governments to have strong navies to monitor their waters. As for protecting natural resources within a country’s Exclusive Economic Zone, this includes both oil exploration as well as combating crimes like illegal fishing. Nevertheless, while African states have valid reasons to upgrade their naval forces, Brazil has a more difficult case regarding its projects. Without addressing the nuclear submarine or carrier by name, in his interview with El País, Admiral Ferreira argues that Brazil must maintain a deterrent force to protect its natural resources, “we have [offshore] oil fields, and if there is an energy crisis it is necessary to deter anyone from coming to Brazil to take our resources.” While there is an obvious logic to the Brazilian Admiral’s statement, it is unclear exactly who is this enemy that requires a nuclear-powered submarine to defeat.

Global Powers

Finally, Admiral Ferreira argued that no world power has vessels in the South Atlantic. That is generally true, particularly since 1986, when the United Nations created the South Atlantic Peace and Cooperation Zone, which declares that the South Atlantic is a nuclear weapons-free zone.

Nevertheless, warships from the global powers routinely cross the South Atlantic; just this past April 2015, the USS Spearhead arrived in Gabon and carried out exercises with the local navy as part of the Africa Partnership Station. “During our visit, we’ll conduct marine-to-marine training along with medical subject matter expert exchanges, thus helping build a stronger Global Network of Navies,” said Commander Matthew Flemming. In May of the same year, the French offshore patrol vessel L’Adroit docked in Cape Town. As for the French-Navy’s-OPV-Visits-Cape-Town-South-Africa-320x213other side of the Atlantic, the USS America visited Brazil in 2014 while the aforementioned French OPV L’Adroit docked in Uruguay in mid-February 2016. Furthermore, apart from the Falklands, London also controls South Georgia and the Sandwich Islands. Moreover, the British-controlled Ascension Island was a strategically important stopover for British warships and transport vessels during the Falklands War.

Hence, Admiral Ferreira’s declaration is a slight overstatement. While there are no British battle groups patrolling the Falklands nor does the U.S. Navy have a fleet stationed in Ascension Island (though the U.S. Air Force does utilize an auxiliary field there), global powers do have a constant presence in the South Atlantic’s waters.

A South Atlantic NATO?

Even though Admiral Ferreira did not discuss South Atlantic integration, it is important to mention that that the two sides of the Atlantic have increased defense ties in recent years. For example the ATLASUR naval exercises bring South American and African navies together, while Brazil and South Africa (along with India) have carried out the IBSAMAR exercises.

Nevertheless, calls for greater South-South cooperation have not ended in some grand new maritime defense initiative. The aforementioned exercises are important, but neither Brazil nor South Africa, the two powerhouses of the South Atlantic, have taken major steps to bring together all these navies towards some common objective (i.e. forming a trans-oceanic task-force to combat maritime crimes). The region already came together in 1986 with the SAPCZ and there is already a modern precedent for various countries attempting to deal with maritime affairs – namely, the African Union’s “2050 Africa’s Integration Maritime Strategy,” which will address (and ideally solve) the continent’s maritime issues, such as border disputes. We have yet to see the South Atlantic capitalize on its general peacefulness to address non-traditional defense problems.

Final Thoughts

Brazilian Admiral Ferreira is generally correct by praising the peacefulness of the South Atlantic. Of course, an unforeseen incident could occur or a series of decisions within a government that prompts it to decide to start a war with a neighboring state. The possibility of petro-money is an enticing reason to engage in violence, particularly as this non-renewable commodity becomes scarcer in the near future or, as the aforementioned ISS report explains, “maritime boundary disputes, many long dormant, are increasingly exacerbated by a growing interest in exploring and exploiting natural resources.” Nevertheless, the region can praise itself for having avoided inter-state war in spite of several border disputes.

Currently, the South Atlantic’s maritime security issues revolve around cracking down on piracy, drug trafficking and protecting natural resources (like oil deposits and the maritime ecosystem). Robust navies, including coast guards, are an obvious requirement, but there is a thin line that separates obtaining equipment that is needed (like Argentina purchasing search-and-rescue vessels or Angola buying crafts) to other whose usage is questionable (i.e.,  Brazil’s acquisition of a nuclear submarine).

W. Alejandro Sanchez is a researcher who focuses on geopolitics, military and cyber security issues in the Western Hemisphere. His research interests include inter-state tensions, narco-insurgent movements and drug cartels, arms sales, the development of Latin American military industries, UN peacekeeping operations, as well as the rising use of drones in Latin America. The views presented in this essay are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the author is associated. Follow him on Twitter @W_Alex_Sanchez.

The Brazilian Navy: Green Water or Blue?

Although much attention has been directed toward the uncertain fate of the Mistral-class amphibious assault ships that were being built in Saint-Nazaire, France for export to Russia, there has been considerably less reporting on Brazil’s quiet naval expansion. The Brazilian Navy has frequently been dubbed a ‘green-water’ force to distinguish it from conventional ‘blue-water’ or ‘brown-water’ navies. Whereas a blue-water navy is concerned with operations on the high seas and engaging in far-ranging expeditions, brown-water navies are geared toward patrolling the shallow waters of the coastline or riverine warfare. Green-water navies, however, mix both capabilities, focusing mainly on securing a country’s littorals but also retaining the ability to venture out into the deep waters of the oceans.

For several decades, this green-water label has been accurate to the Brazilian Navy. Although possessing a vast array of inland patrol ships and river troop transports to exert sovereignty over Brazil’s many rivers and drainage basins, the Brazilian Navy also boasts the BNS Sao Paulo, a Clemenceau-class aircraft carrier purchased from France in 2000. But there has recently been a shift in Brazil’s maritime priorities, suggesting that it may soon be more accurate to regard the Brazilian Navy as a blue-water force with some lingering vestiges of brown-water capabilities. Begun under Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, President of Brazil from 2003 until 2011, and intensified under the Dilma Rouseff’s current government, Brazil has been on a shopping spree for military hardware. Although this has included procuring 36 Gripen NG multirole fighter aircraft from Saab for use by the Brazilian Air Force, much of the recent contracts have pertained to the purchase of vessels intended to modernize the Brazilian Navy. Brazil’s five Type 209 diesel-electric attack submarines, acquired from Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft, will be joined by four Scorpène-class diesel-electric attack submarines to be built domestically with completion of the first vessel expected in 2017.

In March 2013, Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff inaugurated a domestic shipyard at which Brazil’s first nuclear-powered submarine – the fittingly named BNS Alvaro Alberto – will be built with French support. Delivery of the completed vessel is not expected until 2025 but the success of the project would bring Brazil into a very small club of countries with operational nuclear-powered submarines: the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, India, and China.S34 Tikuna

The Barroso-class corvette commissioned in late 2008 also seems to have inspired a new series of ships for the Brazilian Navy. The domestic shipbuilder Arsenal de Marinha do Rio de Janeiro has been contracted to build four vessels based on the design of the Barroso-class but with “stealth capabilities” and which will possess both anti-ship and anti-air armaments. Delivery of the first of these new stealth corvettes is expected in 2019 and as such many specific details about the design are currently unknown. Furthermore, delivery of two new Macaé-class offshore patrol vessels is expected in 2015, while an additional two will be delivered in 2016-2017, bringing Brazil’s fleet of these patrol vessels to seven in total.

But why is there this rapid buildup in maritime forces for Brazil? To some degree, these new procurement projects are intended to offset the Brazilian Navy’s diminished capabilities following the retirement of 21 vessels between 1996 and 2005. This would not explain the focus on vessels with longer-range expeditionary capabilities, though. Some observers may attribute the acquisition of ships with capabilities clearly not intended for the patrol of inland waterways, such as the new “stealth-capable” Barroso-class corvettes, to the threat posed by Guinea-Bissau’s instability. That Lusophone West African country, which has been dubbed a “narco-state”, has been a major hub in the international drug trade; Colombian cocaine often makes its way to Guinea-Bissau from the Brazilian coast, only to then be exported onward to Europe. But President José Mário Vaz, who was elected by a decisive margin to lead Guinea-Bissau in May 2014, has quickly moved to crackdown on corruption in the Bissau-Guinean military and seems set to make counter-trafficking a priority during his term in office. Even if Brazilian policymakers believe it may be necessary to exert a stronger presence in the South Atlantic to discourage narcotics trafficking, a nuclear-powered attack submarine is not at all the right tool for the task.

Rather, it seems most likely that there are two principal factors motivating Brazil’s naval procurement projects. With regard to BNS Alvaro Alberto and the potential acquisition of a second aircraft carrier, Brazil craves the prestige of at least appearing to be the leading maritime power in the Southern Hemisphere. Participation in major international maritime exercises, such as the IBSAMAR series conducted jointly with Indian and South African forces, are intended to promote a view of Brazil as a power that ought to be respected and consulted, particularly as Brazilian policymakers continue to pursue a permanent seat for their country on the United Nations Security Council. More importantly, however, the shipbuilding projects on which Brazil has embarked are intended to build up domestic industry and contribute to economic growth.

Brazil is already attracting considerable interest as a shipbuilder. In September 2014, the Angolan Navy placed an order for seven Macaé-class offshore patrol vessels, with four to be built at Brazilian shipyards. Over the past several years, Brazil has exported various vessels and equipment for use by the Namibian Navy. Equatorial Guinea has expressed its intent to acquire a Barroso-class corvette from Brazil for counter-piracy purposes. The A-29 Super Tucano, a turboprop aircraft intended for close air support and aerial reconnaissance, is produced by Brazilian manufacturer Embraer and has been exported for use in roughly a dozen national air forces. If Brazilian industry is successful in producing submarines and stealth corvettes, demand for Brazilian military hardware will only grow, generating impressive revenue and creating many jobs.

 Of concern, however, are Brazil’s long-term intentions with regard to the construction of BNS Alvaro Alberto. There are few navies in the world with the infrastructure and know-how necessary to successfully operate one or more aircraft carriers; after all, the club of those countries with aircraft carriers in service is limited to just nine. But the export of nuclear-powered attack submarines would undermine the international community’s non-proliferation treaty and could potentially harm international peace and stability. The Islamic Republic of Iran has been rumored to occasionally entertain plans to obtain a nuclear-powered submarine, while the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has allegedly expressed a private interest in obtaining Soviet-era nuclear-powered submarines from the Russian Federation. This is not to say that Brazilian authorities would consider exporting such vessels to Iran, North Korea or other such regimes, but there is certainly a market for future submarines modelled on BNS Alvaro Alberto. It will be necessary to keep a very close eye on the Brazilian shipbuilding and nuclear industries in the 2030s, especially as domestic demand for this class of vessel is satisfied. 

To obtain a deeper understanding of Brazil’s long-term strategic goals and to perhaps exert some degree of influence over Brazilian arms exports, it would be advisable for NATO to seek a partnership with the country. In August 2013, a partnership was established between NATO and Colombia, demonstrating that the Alliance certainly is interested in security affairs in the South Atlantic. Brazil could also contribute much know-how to NATO members, especially as the Alliance attempts to find its place post-Afghanistan. Clearly, there is much work to be done in the area of trust-building if such a partnership is to be found prior to the expected completion of BNS Alvaro Alberto: as Colombian officials visited with NATO counterparts to discuss the partnership, Brazilian policymakers were among those Latin American figures who condemned Colombia for the initiative.

Partnering with Brazil will be very challenging diplomatically, but it is an effort that must be made. This rising power will soon find itself with a blue-water navy and, as such, military vessels flying the Brazilian ensign will become an increasingly frequent sight in the South Atlantic.

Paul Pryce is a Junior Research Fellow at the Atlantic Council of CanadaThis article can be found in its original form at Offiziere.ch

Should NATO Pay Attention to the South Atlantic?

Does a NATO-Colombia partnership make sense? Is cooperation with Brazil realistic? Will NATO be needed to fight piracy in the Gulf of Guinea? Has NATO any role to play in the wider South Atlantic area?


Membership for Colombia?

Recently, Colombia’s president suggested that his country could become NATO member. However, although the Colombian government eventually back-pedaled, a new NATO-Colombia partnership is on the table. For what purpose would Colombia want to join NATO? NATO’s European expeditionary capabilities are shrinking without an end in sight. Hence, NATO as a whole would not have been able to give a credible defense guarantee for Colombia. Only the US can do that, but Washington and Bogota would not need NATO to accomplish that.


Officially, NATO says that there is an “open channel for future cooperation” with Colombia. In diplomatic language, such words could mean anything. If the idea does not die in the next months, we will probably see only talks. During NATO-Colombia talks, status-quo and collective defense oriented member states would oppose any measures lifting NATO-Colombia cooperation to a strategic level. Nevertheless, working level efforts and engagement such as training and education would probably not get a veto, as NATO already has working level contacts worldwide.


Unfortunately, a working level cooperation between NATO and Colombia does not have much to offer. Colombian forces could contribute to NATO missions as Argentina did on the Balkans in the 1990s. Due to political exhaustion and austerity the era of large-scale NATO missions is coming to an end. Thus, Colombia will not get an opportunity to decide whether to contribute or not. Any NATO-Colombia partnership would just include the unspectacular – but useful – measures NATO is doing with all other partners: training, education, best practices sharing, et. al. In consequence, do not expect much with political worth from a NATO-Colombia partnership.

Partnership with Brazil?

Brazil wants Western powers to stay out of its sphere of influence in the Southern Hemisphere. Moreover, the US would be reluctant to give a less capable NATO roles in South America. There would be no benefit for Washington. Thus, there are few real prospects of a substantial NATO-Brazil partnership. Cyber-Security may be an issue of common concern. Certainly, any publicly known NATO-Brazil cyber-cooperation would provoke debates nobody needs and reactions by third parties such as China.


Nevertheless, there is one area where Brazil could have an interest in NATO. This is AWACS. In the past, at major events, such as the Greek Olympics 2004 or the European Championship in Poland and Ukraine 2012, NATO’s AWACS planes have helped to coordinate air traffic and to monitor the airspace. Brazil is going to host the World Cup 2014 and the Olympics 2016, but is lacking sufficient AWACS capabilities. NATO could help out, but Brazil would have to ask.


What we will surely see is an increasing outreach from NATO member states to Brazil. Beside Portugal (remember the common history) and the US, Germany has a “strategic partnership” with Brazil, which has not delivered anything strategic, yet. Moreover, before 2030 Brazil is going to replace its aging aircraft carrier. As the country is unable to build one on its own, Britain and France may be candidates where Brazil could go for carrier-shopping. Otherwise, China will be happy to deliver.

Counter-piracy in the Gulf of Guinea

Regarding piracy, the situation in the Gulf of Aden is getting better, while the problem in the Gulf of Guinea is worsening. Right now, the Western African piracy is only taking place in the littorals, not on the high seas. Thus, it is now appears up to those  littoral  states to solve their problems in their territorial waters and exclusive economic zones.


A new NATO operation would only have to be considered once the pirates reach the Atlantic’s high seas. However, international attention for the problem is already there. The international community has gained counter-piracy experience from the western Indian Ocean. Do not expect a NATO-particular mission soon; the problem may already dealt with. Moreover, even if the Western African pirates would turn high seas, it is far from sure that austerity-suffering NATO would take on that job. Some national states (France, Britain, Portugal, USA) could try to act on their own or countries like Brazil would try to underline their global ambitions with action.



With an eye on geopolitics, the South Atlantic is on a calm track due to the lack of great power conflict. Today Brazil is facing a social and economic crisis. However, World Cup and Olympics will do their share to bring Brazil’s politicians, people and economy back on a good track. The only plausible scenario for a great power conflict is – in the long term – a triangle of competition between the US, China and Brazil; the latter as a swing state. China’s attention in the South Atlantic is growing and the US will not stay passive.


Nevertheless, the there is no role and therefore no need to for NATO to reach out to the wider Southern Atlantic area. Secretary General Rasmussen has traveled around the world during his time in office. As far as I know, he has never visited South America. Please leave it like that. There are more important areas, like the Eastern Mediterranean, to which NATO should pay attention.
Felix Seidler is a PhD candidate at the Institute for Security Policy, University of Kiel, Germany, and a German security affairs writer. This article appeared in original form at his website, Seidlers Sicherheitspolitik.

Will China’s Navy Soon Be Operating in the Atlantic?

An Important Stop

On his way back from a trip to South America in the summer of 2012 China’s Premier Wen Jiabao made the strangest possible stopover. He landed on an American-Portuguese air base on the Azores. The Lajes Field Air Force Base is one of many on the Pentagon’s list to be reduced or scrapped. In the National Review, anti-China hawk Gordon C. Chang speculated whether Wen Jiabao’s stop on the Azores island Terceaira could have a strategic-military context:

“Terceira, however, has one big attraction for Beijing: Air Base No. 4. Better known as Lajes Field, the facility where Premier Wen’s 747 landed in June is jointly operated by the U.S. Air Force and its Portuguese counterpart. If China controlled the base, the Atlantic would no longer be secure. From the 10,865-foot runway on the northeast edge of the island, Chinese planes could patrol the northern and central portions of the Atlantic and thereby cut air and sea traffic between the U.S. and Europe. Beijing would also be able to deny access to the nearby Mediterranean Sea.”

The Azores
                                       The Azores

However, terror-filled visions of Chinese aerial patrols over the Atlantic are out of place. How would the aircraft, including personnel and equipment, get there? And what types of aircraft could perform such feats? China’s military is not blessed with too many long-range bombers or maritime patrol aircraft. Even if they had such capabilities, why should China try to send men and material, strongly needed in the Indo-Pacific, to the other end of the world? From these current practical limitations it would be easy, but wrong, to stop the discussion about China’s role and potential operations in the Atlantic. 

In order to show its flag in the Atlantic, it would be sufficient for China at this point to use the airport and the ports for, let’s say, a “scientific research station.” It is in a similar manner that the British, French, and others pursue their interests in overseas territories. Incidentally, such a station would be an excellent opportunity for electronic espionage – signals intelligence (SIGINT). Furthermore, as a former emergency runway for the Space Shuttle, Lajes Field might also be of interest for China’s space program.

Into the Heart of NATO

This new development in the territory of a NATO country must be seen in the context of China’s efforts in another NATO member, Iceland. China has heavily invested in the country’s ports and infrastructure because Beijing in the long-term expects an ice-free Arctic to open new shipping routes. Meanwhile in Greenland, whose foreign policy is administered by NATO member Denmark, vast quantities of important resources have also caught China’s eye and spurred development plans.

China is attempting to protect and project its strategic interests in the Atlantic and is doing so within NATO countries. This broader trend should not be dismissed without broader analysis. Such moves – note the plural – are something entirely new.

As stated above, the idea of an operational Chinese naval and aerial presence appears bizarre. Why should China try to station hardware, either civil or military or dual-use, on the other side of the world in the midst of a “hostile inland sea”? Viewed strategically, however, and it’s apparent that such a move would be a stab in NATO’s heart. In Iceland, China’s concerns (so far) are civilian and economic projects, but if the Portuguese government allowed the Chinese, in whatever form, a permanent presence on the Azores, it would be a strategic disaster.

What would happen if the U.S.’ Indo-Pacific antagonist settles into the home territory of the Alliance, in which the U.S. has since 1949 set the tone? The signaling effect within and outside NATO would be devastating. Obviously, NATO has never faced only friendly states, as members’ borders were often the literal front lines of the Cold War. But there are few parallels with the potentially hostile (a designation based on privately held beliefs of China’s intent and cyber efforts) power in the midst of the Alliance’s area. Would NATO Europe, as it is now termed in U.S. parlance, permit such a development by acquiescence or inaction, NATO Europe’s image in Washington would reach a new low.


Arctic Sea Routes
                       Arctic Sea Routes

Some of you may be thinking, but doesn’t the Malacca Strait, Gulf of Aden, Suez Canal, and Strait of Gibraltar separate China from the Atlantic? The answer again is due to the developments in the Arctic. In the long term, China’s shortest way into the Atlantic no longer leads through the bottlenecks of the Indian Ocean, but via the Arctic, once the Northeast Passage is ice-free. Regardless, it requires little to imagine Chinese ships, after a stop at the newly opened port in Pakistan’s Gwadar, sailing by the Horn of Africa and through the Mediterranean for a short visit further into the Atlantic. Due to the evacuation of Chinese nationals from Libya in 2011 we could see a recognized requirement for presence for the first (and not last) time.

Heading South

Pop Quiz: Where have Chinese pilots performed their first takeoffs from an aircraft carrier? In the Pacific? Wrong. In the South Atlantic? Right. It is on the Brazilian carrier Sao Paulo that Chinese pilots trained for takeoffs and landings. With the initiation of such military ties, it’s possible that the Chinese pilots and their Brazilian trainers will someday have the opportunity to meet again alongside their carriers during port visits and joint exercises.

Such a vision may or may not come to pass, but China’s interest in the South Atlantic is nothing new, due to Nigeria’s and Angola’s oil, construction projects across the continents, booming markets, and vast extractive industries. Potential sites for Chinese naval bases in the South Atlantic are already discussed openly. If somewhat of a new development for the North Atlantic, Chinese interest in the Azores fits into the picture of China’s pivot to Africa further to the south.

Despite all the speculation: Calm down

China is years or decades away from establishing military superiority in expeditionary operations. China’s military has more than enough work to do in the East and South China Sea working under the slogan “Learning by Doing“.  It remains to be seen if and how far the dispute with Japan about the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands escalates, which could seriously alter China’s naval development trajectory. Further, the Chinese naval presence off the Horn of Africa since 2008 only exists, because it is welcomed by the U.S., India, and other countries in the fight against piracy.


Potetential bases for Chinese naval operations outside China.
Potetential bases for Chinese naval operations outside China.

For the foreseeable future, what China does in the Atlantic will have zero operational military relevance. The strategic and political implications are what matters. In London, with its own not-inconsiderable South Atlantic interests, and in Paris, these geopolitical developments will be watched closely. Washington, London, and Paris are likely able to bring enough pressure to bear on Lisbon that China will not settle on an island in NATO’s heart. The unknown variable is debt. Will Beijing buy so many Portuguese bonds that Lisbon cannot say no? Or will Europe exploit Portugal’s dependence on Euro rescue funds for its geopolitical aims to eliminate any designs China has on the Azores? We will see.

What to do?

There is a lot to doubt about China’s intentions. The growing nationalism, the behavior in cyberspace, and the more aggressive stance in the East and South China Seas speak for themselves. Nevertheless NATO Europe must focus on cooperation rather than confrontation. The reality is that the U.S. and NATO have already developed templates for successful cooperation with China’s navy off the Horn of Africa. Such measures should be continued and expanded, for example with counter-piracy, humanitarian assistance, and counter-terrorism efforts. However, the reality is that China is also developing its navy as an instrument of Indo-Pacific power projection, which will have the side-effect of enabling it to pursue its interests in the Atlantic stronger than before.

But there is no reason for doom and gloom if today in the capitals of NATO Europe the right geostrategic agenda is set and pragmatic decisions are made. It is all on Paris and London.

Felix Seidler is a fellow at the Institute for Security Policy, University of Kiel, Germany and runs the site Seidlers-Sicherheitspolitik.net (Seidler’s Security Policy).

Follow on twitter: @SeidersSiPo