WASHINGTON/NEW YORK/ BEIJING — China is reportedly looking to build a military presence in Equatorial Guinea, which would be its second such facility in Africa and the first along the Atlantic Ocean. But China’s options are not limited to the small country, analysts say.
Kenya, Tanzania, Namibia, Angola and Seychelles are strong candidates, each with different reasons.
Yet, Beijing is also likely to choose its military basing options carefully, analysts say, ensuring that any host country is politically stable enough so the Chinese will not be forced out if the local leadership were to be toppled. China’s first African base is in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa.
“China, no doubt, has a wide range of options to choose from when it comes to basing,” said Paul Nantulya, a research associate at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies.
“Certainly China is not going to publicize discussions that it’s having with African countries about issues of a military nature because these tend to be controversial,” he said.
“However, if we look at China’s operational patterns of behavior, there will be a number of considerations that the Chinese government will take into account,” he said.
First, China will likely opt for partners with which it enjoys the highest strategic level of relations, Nantulya said. Of the five tiers of partnerships it has, the “comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership” is the highest. Those that fit that category are Ethiopia, Guinea, Kenya, Mozambique, Namibia, Tanzania and Zimbabwe.
But politically unpredictable Zimbabwe, for instance, will not be considered an option, Nantulya said. “Even when relations are strong, whenever there are signs of instability, China has shown to be very cautious and very conservative.”
Beijing will also favor countries that have clout in the African Union and will be able to mobilize support and mitigate resistance to a Chinese base, Nantulya said.
The Wall Street Journal reported this month that Beijing is aiming to establish a permanent military presence — a potential base for supplying materiel and repairing naval vessels — in Equatorial Guinea, citing American officials. U.S. intelligence agencies have been monitoring China’s attempts to secure a base there since around 2019, according to the WSJ.
The prospect of the People’s Liberation Army gaining a foothold along the Atlantic, in addition to its expanding Pacific presence, has alarmed Washington as tensions continue to simmer. Beijing’s military capabilities have grown increasingly sophisticated and the U.S. shift of its military focus to the Indo-Pacific could leave openings elsewhere for China to capitalize on.
U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has made clear to Equatorial Guinea leaders that “certain potential steps involving [China] and [its] activities there would raise national security concerns for us,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters.
Kirby said that Beijing “continued to try to coerce behavior out of many African nations and try to intimidate, use economic leverage to seek their own national security goals there.”
Michael Tanchum, an associate senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, has written that Equatorial Guinea is not alone among African nations with a high indebtedness to China and that it is possible that other Chinese naval bases may yet appear on Africa’s Atlantic coast.
“Whether or not it builds such new installations in the short term, Beijing’s consolidation of a pan-African security architecture will undoubtedly lead to their establishment in the long term,” he said in a paper published last week.
“In such circumstances, the continent of Africa itself would serve a forward-base for Beijing to project power directly towards North America and Europe,” he wrote.
China established its first, and so far only, overseas military base in the eastern African nation of Djibouti in 2017.
The port of Bata, Equatorial Guinea, is seen during a visit by U.S. Expeditionary Sea Base USS Hershel “Woody” Williams in August. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy)
The facility is strategically located near the Bab el-Mandeb Strait linking the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea. It was learned this year that Beijing has completed a pier there that can accommodate an aircraft carrier, and the base can handle China’s new amphibious assault ship as well.
The site is not far from U.S. military facilities in Djibouti. Washington has accused Beijing of pointing military-grade lasers at American pilots. But the base is a long way from the continental U.S., and Washington has considered it a relatively minor threat.
But lately China has stepped up efforts to counter the push by the U.S. and its partners for a “free and open Indo-Pacific.”
According to American media, China was secretly building what was suspected to be a military facility at a port in the United Arab Emirates. Work on the project was reportedly halted after the Biden administration warned that it could threaten relations between Washington and Abu Dhabi.
Concerns about the UAE’s relationship with China, particularly the risk of sensitive information leaking to Beijing, have stymied negotiations on a UAE purchase of F-35 stealth fighter jets from the U.S. Abu Dhabi recently suspended the talks amid pressure from Washington to distance itself from Beijing.
An annual report on China’s military capabilities released last month by the U.S. Department of Defense states that Beijing has likely considered building facilities in Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the UAE, Kenya, the Seychelles, Tanzania, Angola and Tajikistan.
“China’s leaders are expanding their ability to project force and to establish a global network of military bases,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a speech this month.
The Chinese Communist Party-affiliated Global Times, meanwhile, has asserted that the WSJ report on the Equatorial Guinea base “is not true and is the latest move of the U.S. to hype the China threat,” citing unnamed Chinese military experts.
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s government has sought a broad military footprint throughout the Indo-Pacific, from the East and South China seas to the Indian Ocean.
Revisions to China’s National Defense Law last January added “protecting [China’s] overseas interests” to the missions of the People’s Liberation Army. The law states that Beijing will use its forces to “protect the security of overseas Chinese citizens, organizations, institutions and facilities.”
China also looks to protect sea lanes connected to its Belt and Road infrastructure initiative. In an October 2020 call with Equatorial Guinea President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo to mark the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations, Xi called for deeper “practical collaboration under the Belt and Road Initiative and within the framework of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation.”