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Fears of a Chinese Naval Base in West Africa Are Overblown

Reports about a possible Atlantic base reveal more about Washington’s military priorities than Beijing’s.

By , the managing editor of the China Global South Project.
Chinese naval base in Djibouti
Chinese naval base in Djibouti
Chinese military personnel attend the opening ceremony of China's new military base in Djibouti on Aug. 1, 2017. STR/AFP via Getty Images

In 2017, China established its first overseas naval base in the small East African country of Djibouti. The base, where perhaps 2,000 Chinese troops are stationed only a few miles from the U.S. Navy’s own Djiboutian base, Camp Lemonnier, set off alarm bells in Washington about Africa’s role in China’s growing military profile. Since then, there has been a constant drip feed of rumors about a possible second Chinese naval base in Africa. Most recently, reports have homed in on Equatorial Guinea—a location that would establish a permanent Chinese military presence in the Atlantic Ocean for the first time.

Gauging Chinese defense plans is a risky business. But on closer look, the current flurry of rumors seems to reveal more about Washington’s priorities than Beijing’s. There is abundant evidence that China has a keen interest in expanding its military reach in the Indian Ocean. But worries among U.S. officials about a Chinese naval presence on Africa’s Atlantic coast seem to be based more on speculation than superior intelligence about Beijing’s intentions. Most likely, this speculation is part of ongoing debates in the Biden administration about the future U.S. military posture in Africa.

Reports about Chinese plans for another African base have been both alarmist and vague. A 2021 U.S. Department of Defense report says China “likely considered” 13 different countries for military installations—including Angola, Kenya, the Seychelles, and Tanzania—and “has probably already made overtures to Namibia.” (Both the Namibian and Chinese governments denied the claim.) In May 2021, the head of U.S. Africa Command, Gen. Stephen Townsend, added more grist to the rumor mill when he told the Associated Press: “I want [the Chinese base] to be in Tanzania instead of on the Atlantic Coast. The Atlantic coast concerns me greatly.” The same AP report also says that unnamed “other U.S. officials” are worried that China is specifically focusing on the Gulf of Guinea off the West African coast. In December 2021, the rumors suddenly became more concrete: China has homed in on Equatorial Guinea, according to unnamed U.S. government sources and classified intelligence reports cited by the Wall Street Journal.

In 2017, China established its first overseas naval base in the small East African country of Djibouti. The base, where perhaps 2,000 Chinese troops are stationed only a few miles from the U.S. Navy’s own Djiboutian base, Camp Lemonnier, set off alarm bells in Washington about Africa’s role in China’s growing military profile. Since then, there has been a constant drip feed of rumors about a possible second Chinese naval base in Africa. Most recently, reports have homed in on Equatorial Guinea—a location that would establish a permanent Chinese military presence in the Atlantic Ocean for the first time.

Gauging Chinese defense plans is a risky business. But on closer look, the current flurry of rumors seems to reveal more about Washington’s priorities than Beijing’s. There is abundant evidence that China has a keen interest in expanding its military reach in the Indian Ocean. But worries among U.S. officials about a Chinese naval presence on Africa’s Atlantic coast seem to be based more on speculation than superior intelligence about Beijing’s intentions. Most likely, this speculation is part of ongoing debates in the Biden administration about the future U.S. military posture in Africa.

Reports about Chinese plans for another African base have been both alarmist and vague. A 2021 U.S. Department of Defense report says China “likely considered” 13 different countries for military installations—including Angola, Kenya, the Seychelles, and Tanzania—and “has probably already made overtures to Namibia.” (Both the Namibian and Chinese governments denied the claim.) In May 2021, the head of U.S. Africa Command, Gen. Stephen Townsend, added more grist to the rumor mill when he told the Associated Press: “I want [the Chinese base] to be in Tanzania instead of on the Atlantic Coast. The Atlantic coast concerns me greatly.” The same AP report also says that unnamed “other U.S. officials” are worried that China is specifically focusing on the Gulf of Guinea off the West African coast. In December 2021, the rumors suddenly became more concrete: China has homed in on Equatorial Guinea, according to unnamed U.S. government sources and classified intelligence reports cited by the Wall Street Journal.

More anxious media coverage and think tank analysis has followed in the short time since then. In a European Council for Foreign Relations report, Michael Tanchum speculates that the alleged Chinese base will be the first of several on Africa’s Atlantic coast, a move that will “shift global power dynamics, eroding US dominance, and relegating Europe to the sidelines of international affairs.” Meanwhile, Townsend continues to lean into the Equatorial Guinea narrative. “[The Chinese are] putting chips down in all of these countries on the Atlantic coast,” he told Voice of America. “And we think that the place that they’ve got traction right now is Equatorial Guinea.” Last month, Molly Phee, the U.S. State Department’s top Africa official, led a delegation to Equatorial Guinea. While the official account didn’t mention the base, the Wall Street Journal depicted the visit as an attempt to convince the country’s government to rebuff China.

Why is the discussion in Washington about Chinese military plans for Africa now all Atlantic, all the time?

Subject these claims to scrutiny, however, and they start to look shaky. When journalists queried Defense Department spokesperson John Kirby on the issue of a Chinese Atlantic base, he skillfully avoided the question. And what little evidence one can find is circumstantial at best. For example, a Center for Strategic and International Studies report points out that China has built a commercial port in Bata, Equatorial Guinea, as part of the Belt and Road Initiative. While Chinese-built deep-sea ports are usually designed by default to accommodate both commercial and military vessels, that isn’t saying much: As of 2019, Chinese entities had built, financed, or operated a whopping 46 ports in sub-Saharan Africa, so the mere existence of a port doesn’t necessarily make much of a case for its use as a Chinese naval base.

The case for an Atlantic naval base fitting into China’s strategy is also weak. In the case of Djibouti, one reason for China to establish its base was to support its participation in multilateral anti-piracy activities in the Gulf of Aden. Some now argue that anti-piracy activities could also provide Beijing with the pretext for a base in Equatorial Guinea—based on a single reference to China’s willingness to support anti-piracy activities in the Gulf of Guinea in the Beijing Action Plan that came out of the 2018 Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) summit. This is not nothing, but such a commitment was absent from FOCAC’s Dakar Action Plan in 2021. What’s more, Beijing has studiously avoided West African pressure to become more involved in peacekeeping in the region. If China wanted to launch anti-piracy patrols in West African waters as a step toward a base, the 2021 FOCAC summit in Senegal would presumably have been the perfect occasion to do so.

Nor have experts tracking Chinese defense discussions found much interest in an Atlantic base. Inputs from Chinese think tankers and academics are conspicuously absent on the issue. This isn’t proof one way or the other, but it stands in stark contrast to the flurry of conversations in Beijing when it comes to possible future military bases in the Indian Ocean. This trend was reinforced by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s annual African tour in January, which focused strongly on Africa’s Indian Ocean littoral and island states. Immediately after, he also visited the Maldives and Sri Lanka, and within the same week he met with representatives from Oman, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain, as well as from Iran and the Gulf Cooperation Council.

All this seems to indicate a much stronger Chinese interest in the northern Indian Ocean than the Atlantic. Just last year, for example, U.S. intervention interrupted the construction of a Chinese military facility in the United Arab Emirates, according to reports.

So why is the discussion in Washington about Chinese military plans for Africa now all Atlantic, all the time? The narrowing of the narrative comes amid ongoing uncertainty about the future extent of the U.S. military presence in Africa. In 2019, the Trump administration planned a sharp reduction of U.S. troops in Africa and even discussed a full pullout from West Africa. This would have included the abandonment of a newly built drone base in Niger and a reduction in assistance to French forces operating in the Sahel. This move foundered on concerted resistance from the U.S. Congress. In 2020, President Donald Trump also abruptly withdrew the majority of U.S. troops from Somalia, a move Townsend acknowledged complicated the U.S. military’s mission in a region suffering under terrorist groups like al-Shabab.

Uncertainty over the future of the U.S. military in Africa continues under the Biden administration. The Pentagon’s latest Global Posture Review, released in November 2021, doesn’t clarify the issue: It says that future U.S. troop levels in Africa are still subject to “several ongoing interagency reviews.”

The Atlantic narrative also takes as a given the assumption that such a base would be a major security challenge to the U.S. military. However, Jean-Pierre Cabestan, an expert on China-Djibouti relations, estimates that the Djibouti base currently houses about 2,000 Chinese troops. This is less than half the U.S. personnel at Camp Lemonnier. Even if China were to build a base on the Atlantic twice the size of its naval port in Djibouti, it would still be dwarfed by the combined might of the United States and its allies in the Atlantic, including the United States’ estimated 29 military bases and outposts on the African continent.

These questions, however, might be missing the point. Townsend, as head of U.S. Africa Command, may be less focused on any real threat of Chinese expansion than on getting emotional buy-in from policymakers on Capitol Hill, who will be deciding his command’s future budgets. One such figure is Sen. Jim Inhofe, who sits on the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee. He echoed the theme of Chinese military expansion in Africa at Celeste Ann Wallander’s recent confirmation hearing for assistant secretary of defense.

Who knows? A Chinese Equatorial Guinea base may still happen. But the fact that the story keeps resurfacing without much more than a hint of evidence seems to reveal more about Washington’s priorities than Beijing’s.

Cobus van Staden is the managing editor of the China Global South Project and a senior research affiliate at the South African Institute of International Affairs. Twitter: @stadenesque

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