Ana Beatriz Ferreira,
4th year International Relations student
at the Petrópolis Catholic University (UCP),
Federative Republic of Brazil
The South Atlantic Ocean as a Zone of Brazilian Power Projection:
Challenges and Opportunities
From the twentieth to early years of the twenty-first century, the international community has perceived the South Atlantic Ocean as one of the least strategically relevant oceans of the world. However, for many western African countries and Brazil, more specifically, the importance of the South Atlantic is immensurable.
According to official Brazilian documents, such as the National Defense White Paper (2016, p. 33), the South Atlantic is a maritime space within “the 16th parallel north, the west coast of Africa, Antarctica, east of South America and east of the Lesser Antilles.” From that, this region can be divided, for academic purposes, into three subzones related to international security: the South American maritime area, the African maritime area, and the high seas.
Focusing on the African coast, twenty-one states with distinct socioeconomic and military contexts border the South Atlantic Ocean. This region stands out as a route for international trade and commerce that leads to European and North American markets and for the natural resources it contains. It is estimated that 86% of the African total proven oil reserves are in the Gulf of Guinea, which extends from the Senegalese to Angolan coast.
On the other shore of the South Atlantic, it is noticeable that, although other relevant states such as Uruguay and Argentina have considerable coastlines, Brazil is the country with the longest one; subsequently, more than 90% of its commercial flow passes through these waters, 95% of its oil reserves and 88.4% of its gas reserves are located within this same ocean. Thus, for the Brazilian government, the preservation of peace and stability in the South Atlantic is an outstanding and long-lasting strategic objective.
Hence, historically Brazil has promoted the particular needs of the region as a way to reduce possible threats. In these lines, the country proposed the creation of the Zone of Peace and Cooperation of the South Atlantic (ZPCSA), formalized by the UN General Assembly Resolution 41/11 in 1986. Although the ZPCSA has not expanded into a military alliance, such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which would provide military security, it serves as a multilateral dialogue and diplomatic forum for addressing regional issues concerning its members – which are Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and 21 South Atlantic nations in the African continent from Senegal to South Africa.
It is worth mentioning that one of the main objectives of the ZPCSA was to establish a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the South Atlantic, which came to fruition in the 90s. Even so, since the 1998 reunion, its activities had been in standstill for almost 10 years. However, the current rise of new non-state threats in the South Atlantic security environment, such as piracy and the transatlantic trade in drugs and small arms and light weapons (SALW), imposes new challenges – and opportunities – for the organization.
The Gulf of Guinea has been the focus of such concerns, with two main security threats identified: terrorism and piracy. As claimed by Oliveira and Silveira, “it is not by chance that these two threats, due to their eminently transnational character and potential international impact, may give rise to greater interference by extra regional actors in the African continent and in the waters of the South Atlantic.”
With regard to terrorism in the Gulf, the extremist Islamic group Boko Haram in 2011 after bombing a UN building in Abuja, Nigeria, moved beyond local politics toward an international agenda having ties with others terrorist groups, such as Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Besides that, from 2014 onwards, pirate attacks concentrating in Nigerian jurisdictional waters have become more widespread reaching shores as far as Angola. Another issue worth pointing out is the increase in the transatlantic drug trade between South America and Europe, driven by rising demands in European markets.
That said, the NATO engagement in the South Atlantic, which is an area out of its jurisdiction, can be explained as a search for energy security since 40% and 30% of European and US oil imports, respectively, transit through the Gulf of Guinea each year. Also, the rich mineral seabed, out of any countries’ territorial sea, draws attention from Australia, China, England, France, Germany, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the USA.
Furthermore, the gain of influence by other extra regional states such as Russia, India, and China, the latter by including many African countries in the New Chinese Silk Road, has become a concern for NATO members about the competition for resources and political influence. In addition, the creation of the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) in 2007 and the reactivation of the Fourth Fleet in 2008 show the USA’s ambition to strengthen its power projection not only over Africa but over the South Atlantic as well.
For Brazil, extra regional presence in the South Atlantic undermine its interests in building a transatlantic community, especially through the ZPCSA, and becoming a relevant actor at regional and global level. Although the current government of Jair Bolsonaro has preferred a closer relationship with the US, letting evident that it has the intention to make Brazil a strong ally of the Americans, the Gulf of Guinea crisis should still be seen as an opportunity to affirm Brazil’s foreign policy actions as it creates an environment for a more active regional integration in the fight against piracy.
From here, these new threats also constitute a favorable situation for Brazil to avoid the prospect of a military presence of great powers in its strategic surroundings and to fortify its leading role, providing means to work, preferably, with West African countries in joint operations, such as the Obangame Express. This joint exercise aims to train navies belonging to the ZPCSA and to tackle maritime insecurity in the region. By acting this way, not only Brazil would strengthen its power projection over the South Atlantic, but it also would be an important actor in providing security for a region considered increasingly significant.
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Ana Beatriz Ferreira is a member of the Celso da Rocha Miranda Fund (FCRM/UCP) of the International Relations Research Group (GPRI - UCP), working in the International
Security research line.