China is seeking to establish a major new military base in Africa with direct access to the Atlantic Ocean, according to U.S. intelligence officials who spoke with the Wall Street Journal on Sunday. A permanent base on the Atlantic coast would allow Chinese warships to rearm across the ocean from the U.S., giving easier geographic access to major U.S. cities like Washington, D.C., New York City, Boston, and more.
U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) commanding Gen. Stephen Townsend said in May that China was looking at countries along nearly the entire west African coastline, as far north as Mauritania and as far south as Namibia, in an effort to find an Atlantic base. Now, officials told the Wall Street Journal that China has begun to focus on the central African country of Equatorial Guinea as a top choice.
China will likely have its eyes on the Equatorial Guinean port city of Bata, which not only has access to the ocean but also has highways linking it to Gabon and the African interior. Bata already has a Chinese-built deep-water commercial port, giving it access to the Gulf of Guinea.
The Chinese moves in Africa are reportedly setting off alarms in Washington. While China already has a strong naval presence in the waters of the Indo-Pacific, the U.S. is trying to prevent it from being able to project military power beyond that region.
China has already established a military base on the coastal east African country of Djibouti, at the mouth of the Red Sea.
In October, principal deputy U.S. national security adviser Jon Finer visited Equatorial Guinea in an effort to persuade Equatorial Guinean President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo and his son and heir apparent, Vice President Teodoro “Teodorin” Nguema Obiang Mangue, to distance the country from China’s advances.
A senior official in President Joe Biden’s administration said “As part of our diplomacy to address maritime-security issues, we have made clear to Equatorial Guinea that certain potential steps involving [Chinese] activity there would raise national-security concerns.”
Similar U.S. diplomatic efforts to stop China’s military expansion around, appear to have had some success. In November, CNN reported the United Arab Emirates halted construction of a suspected Chinese military facility at the port of Khalifa, amid growing U.S. diplomatic pressure.
The U.S. has worked to strengthen ties with Equatorial Guinea in recent months. The U.S. offered aid to the country, in March, after an explosion at a munitions storage on one of the country’s military bases killed at least 100 people.
The U.S. also held joint military training with Equatorial Guinean troops in March. In August, a U.S. warship anchored off the Bata port and invited local officials and naval personnel to observe firefighting training on the ship.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the U.S. doesn’t expect Equatorial Guinea to sever all of its extensive ties with China but does hope the country will confine those ties with China to relations that are unthreatening to the U.S.
It remains to be seen whether the U.S. will be able to keep Equatorial Guinea from pursuing more threatening ties with China. Diplomacy with the African country presents a challenge for the U.S., which has accused the Obiang government of extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances, torture and other human rights abuses in the past.
The U.S. Department of Justice also brought a series of civil cases against Obiang Mangue, alleging he had taken funds from the country’s treasury for his own personal gain. In a 2014 settlement, Obiang Mangue surrendered some of his assets to the DOJ.
Despite those past legal actions, Equatorial Guinea is also heavily reliant on U.S. oil companies. Those oil companies have helped extract offshore oil and raise Equatorial Guinea up as the richest country in the sub-Saharan mainland region of Africa.
The U.S. State Department also recently raised Equatorial Guinea’s ranking in its annual assessment of how countries combat human trafficking. The improved ranking could qualify the African country to receive U.S. maritime-security assistance, which could help further ties.