Biden Plays Nice With Equatorial Guinea to Spoil China’s Atlantic Ambitions

The world’s longest-serving autocrat will be feted this week in Washington.

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Equatorial Guinea's President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo speaks after casting his ballot at the polling station of the former Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Malabo during Equatorial Guinea's presidential, legislative and municipal elections on November 20, 2022.
Equatorial Guinea's President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo speaks after casting his ballot at the polling station of the former Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Malabo during Equatorial Guinea's presidential, legislative and municipal elections on November 20, 2022.
Equatorial Guinea's longtime leader, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, speaks after casting his ballot at a polling station in Malabo during elections on Nov. 20. Samuel Obiang/AFP via Getty Images

Over the past year, the Biden administration has dispatched a stream of high-level officials to a small coastal country in Central Africa in a quiet campaign to convince the world’s longest-serving dictator to start shedding his ties to China. That effort will be put to the test this week, when President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea will attend President Joe Biden’s U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington.

The U.S. diplomatic campaign is meant to fend off China’s efforts to build a naval base in Equatorial Guinea, which would give Beijing a new military foothold in the Atlantic Ocean on the Gulf of Guinea, off the coast of West Africa.

But human rights advocates argue that the administration is undermining its own promotion of American values abroad by courting Obiang and sidestepping his 43-year record of corruption and grave rights abuses by feting the dictator.

Over the past year, the Biden administration has dispatched a stream of high-level officials to a small coastal country in Central Africa in a quiet campaign to convince the world’s longest-serving dictator to start shedding his ties to China. That effort will be put to the test this week, when President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea will attend President Joe Biden’s U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington.

The U.S. diplomatic campaign is meant to fend off China’s efforts to build a naval base in Equatorial Guinea, which would give Beijing a new military foothold in the Atlantic Ocean on the Gulf of Guinea, off the coast of West Africa.

But human rights advocates argue that the administration is undermining its own promotion of American values abroad by courting Obiang and sidestepping his 43-year record of corruption and grave rights abuses by feting the dictator.

“Obiang has realized he can use this China card and get the U.S. to look the other way in the face of stolen elections, completely nonexistent rule of law, and corruption that is rampant,” said Tutu Alicante, the executive director of EG Justice, a nonprofit focused on human rights and democracy in Equatorial Guinea.

The Biden administration’s engagement with Obiang, who has ruled the West African nation since coming to power in a coup in 1979, underscores a central tension in Biden’s foreign-policy agenda, when vying for influence in autocratic countries to counter Beijing can mean putting the administration’s global democracy and human rights agenda on the back burner. Since Washington first caught wind of China’s ambitions to build a naval base in the Atlantic last year, current and former officials said, a series of top U.S. diplomats, intelligence officers, and White House officials have visited Equatorial Guinea to meet with Obiang and his top aides.

In October 2021, U.S. Principal Deputy National Security Advisor Jonathan Finer visited the country, accompanied by senior National Security Council and State Department officials. Then, in February, Biden’s top envoy for African affairs, Molly Phee, led a delegation of U.S. officials to the country, where they met with Obiang and his son, who serves as vice president, Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, known as Teodorin. In November, Teodorin posted photos on Instagram that appeared to show CIA Deputy Director David Cohen visiting Equatorial Guinea and meeting with him. (A spokesperson for the CIA declined to comment on the matter.)

Several current and former U.S. officials, two of whom spoke on condition of anonymity, bristled at the high-level attention Obiang has received from the administration, saying Obiang is transparently playing Washington off Beijing for more clout and influence from each country and Washington, for its part, is playing right into it.

Other former officials concede that the Biden administration doesn’t have much of a choice, given the high stakes of blocking China’s first naval base in the Atlantic. “Obiang has not survived this long for being foolish, so the government in Malabo is milking it for what it’s worth,” said J. Peter Pham, who served as U.S. special envoy for the Sahel and Great Lakes regions of Africa during the Trump administration. “Yet China getting a naval base in Equatorial Guinea would be a significant strategic blow to the U.S. and its allies.”

Top U.S. military officials have warned that such a base would give the Chinese navy a critical new springboard and logistical hub to operate across wide stretches of the Atlantic Ocean. The “most significant threat” from China would be a “militarily useful naval facility on the Atlantic coast of Africa,” Gen. Stephen Townsend, then-head of U.S. Africa Command, testified before the U.S. Senate in April 2021. “By ‘militarily useful,’ I mean something more than a place that they can make port calls and get gas and groceries. I am talking about a port where they can rearm with munitions and repair naval vessels.”

Other analysts cast doubt on how much of a game-changer a Chinese naval base in the Gulf of Guinea would actually be, as the region isn’t as strategically important to U.S. interests as other major global shipping lanes, such as the Persian Gulf or Strait of Malacca.

“[W]orries 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,” Cobus van Staden, the managing editor of the China Global South Project and a senior research affiliate at the South African Institute of International Affairs, wrote in Foreign Policy this March.

By courting Obiang, however, critics say the Biden administration is showing democratic activists in Equatorial Guinea and across other autocratic countries in Africa that its talk on democracy and human rights is just talk.

“Equatorial Guineans do not benefit from having a Chinese naval base. We are the first ones to oppose a Chinese base,” Alicante said. “But the way to avoid that is not by enabling an authoritarian kleptocrat.”

“It sends a message across Africa on engaging … and legitimizing a system of authoritarian kleptocracy around the world that runs counter to what the Biden administration has claimed it wants to do,” he added.

A spokesperson for the White House National Security Council confirmed Obiang’s attendance at the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington this week but declined to say whether Obiang would get a face-to-face meeting with Biden.

“The president’s foreign policy is rooted in values—values like promoting human rights. Human rights will always be on the agenda, and the president will not shy away from raising these issues with any foreign leader anywhere in the world,” the spokesperson said.

Freedom House, an independent advocacy organization, describes Obiang’s government as a “highly repressive authoritarian regime,” noting that opposition politicians are routinely arrested and the security services engage in violence and torture with impunity. Africa’s ninth-largest oil producer, Equatorial Guinea has at times boasted a GDP per capita higher than Saudi Arabia or South Korea, but much of the country’s oil wealth has remained concentrated in the hands of Obiang’s family and cabal of elite supporters, while some 70 percent of the population remains in poverty, according to data from the African Development Bank.

Teodorin personifies the deeply entrenched corruption in Equatorial Guinea. He was sanctioned by the United Kingdom in 2021 for corruption and soliciting bribes to fund a lavish lifestyle, which included a $100 million mansion in Paris and a $275,000 crystal-encrusted glove once worn by Michael Jackson.

In November, Obiang announced that he had been reelected to a sixth term as president with 95 percent of the vote. The elections were marred by widespread accusations of fraud, intimidation, and coercion. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement that the United States had “serious doubts” about the credibility of the election’s results.

But even as the State Department tsk-tsked the election results, the Pentagon worked to counter China’s influence by improving U.S.-Equatorial Guinean military ties with joint training and possible offers for increased military aid. Equatorial Guinean troops engaged with their U.S. counterparts in naval exercises last year, and several U.S. Navy ships have also visited Equatorial Guinean ports in the past year. Pentagon officials have also sought to warn Equatorial Guinea of the downsides of cozying up to Beijing and allowing the construction of a military port by portraying Chinese investments in Africa as predatory economic gambits, where generous loans and infrastructure projects from Beijing become debt traps and geopolitical leverage.

Satellite image captured by Maxar Technologies shows a Chinese-built deepwater port in Bata, Equatorial Guinea's largest city, on February 23, 2022.
Satellite image captured by Maxar Technologies shows a Chinese-built deepwater port in Bata, Equatorial Guinea's largest city, on February 23, 2022.

Satellite image captured by Maxar Technologies shows a Chinese-built deepwater port in Bata, Equatorial Guinea’s largest city, on Feb. 23, 2022.Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies

“We don’t have a desire to counter China when it comes to basing per se. What we are trying to do is encourage our African partners to make informed decisions about the partners that they work with,” Chidi Blyden, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for African affairs, told reporters at an event this month.

But China’s presence may be growing faster than U.S. pushback. Satellite imagery provided to Foreign Policy by Maxar Technologies, a space and satellite imagery company, shows that a Chinese infrastructure project in Equatorial Guinea has significantly expanded the country’s deep-water port in Bata, a large hub on the Gulf of Guinea linking the country to Gabon and the rest of the region.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank, assessed last year that Bata’s two long commercial piers “could easily handle” any Chinese naval vessel and are close to an oil facility that could help resupply ships and give China the ability to expand its presence into the Atlantic Ocean. Beijing also has other inroads into the country. Following a model of influence that it has also used to gain access in the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific, Beijing also provides training and arms support to the Equatorial Guinean police.

Alicante said that ultimately, the frenzy over a potential Chinese naval base is overshadowing a more important debate on whether the African country can ever shed its dictatorship. “What Equatorial Guinea needs most is democracy. And that doesn’t come from naval bases,” he said.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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