NOVEMBER 16: China is eyeing a US Air Force base in the Azores which is threatened with closure,  according to an expert on Chinese affairs.

Air Base Number 4 at Lajes Field, on Tercieira in the Atlantic chain of islands, is the home of the US 65th air base wing and jointly operated by the US and the Portuguese air force.

Writing on the Drudge Report website, writer and China expert Gordon G. Chang said that Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao had visited Terceira in June and toured the island.

Terceira has a largely agricultural economy and one in 20 jobs on the island are provided by the base.

Mr Chang said: “Unemployment is already high, about ten per cent. If Terceira is to have any future, the Portuguese government will have to find a new major tenant for Air Base Number 4.”

Mr Chang said that the strategic important of the air base had lessened in recent years and had been downsized, while Beijing has identified Portugal as its entry point into Europe.

He added: “It is in this context the Portuguese are already thinking about the planned closure of Lajes Field. They don’t want to invite China in, but they have quietly indicated they will have no choice is the US Air Force decides to leave the base.”

Mr Chang said that if China was to take over the base, its air force would be able the patrol northern and central Atlantic and cut sea traffic between the US and Europe.

He added that Terciera is less than 2300 miles from New York – which means Chinese planes could target the US mainland, as well as deny access to the Mediterranean Sea.

Mr Chang quoted a US Defense Department spokesman as saying the US had “a close relationship” with Portugal.

The spokesman added: “They are an important NATO ally and bilateral partner and we continue to discuss our strong defence cooperation, in Portugal and around the world.”