The Wall Street Journal reported on Monday that U.S. intelligence believes China is seeking to use the port of Bata in Equatorial Guinea, on Africa’s West coast, as a forward base for naval operations in the Atlantic.
There has been speculation about such a move for some time. I wrote in May 2021 about an earlier report at the Washington Times, which cited Army General Stephen Townsend, Commander of U.S. Africa Command, expressing concern that China was seeking a naval base in West Africa. General Townsend didn’t mention a specific country or port, but prior information indicated Senegal, Cape Verde Islands, and Western Sahara were possibilities. (That article also dealt with reports that China wants to make a forward base out of Kiribati in the Pacific, with the initial outfitting to support an air base.)
Interestingly, one of the last articles I wrote about the Trump presidency also included the topic of prospective Chinese bases in the Atlantic. This piece from 10 January, just 10 days before he left office, included a fairly extensive segment on Trump’s recognition of Moroccan sovereignty in Western Sahara, and how that could serve to deflect the inroads sought there by China.
At the time, the situation in Washington, D.C. was quite bizarre – this was when security fencing was being put up around the U.S. Capitol and the National Guard was being deployed there – and it seemed strangely at odds with those and other conditions of paralysis in the United States for Trump and his foreign policy team to remain as extraordinarily active as they did until the very end. Some of the final things Trump did were about fending off Chinese and Russian moves on the perimeters of America’s ocean bastions in the Atlantic and Pacific.
The liveliness of Trump’s activity in that regard, in the last days of his term, remains of analytical interest. We’re not likely to learn more about it any time soon.
But it’s noteworthy that the Biden administration’s efforts since January to urge Equatorial Guinea out of the path of China’s machinations have reportedly met with little success. The U.S and Equatorial Guinea have not had particularly warm relations. Over the last decade, the U.S. has dealt with Malabo’s leader, President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, and his family (which holds the major portfolios of state) largely as a corruption problem.
U.S. petroleum companies are involved in the bustling oil and gas industry in the Gulf of Guinea, where Equatorial Guinea has substantial holdings. But it’s China that has come in and built a large and impressively accoutered deep-water commercial port at Bata, the nation’s largest city situated at the mouth of the Boara River.
As WSJ notes, Equatorial Guinea participated in a U.S.-sponsored, multinational maritime exercise in the Gulf of Guinea, Obangame Express, in March 2021. In August 2021, Expeditionary Sea Base USS Hershel “Woody” Williams (ESB 4) participated in another exercise in the Gulf, this one led by Brazil, during which Wiliams conducted a port visit in Bata. The port visit is a useful and positive step, making a local economic impact (e.g., bringing in Williams’s crew complement of some 250) as well a geomilitary point.
In the end that may be one of the chief tiebreakers, although it’s not clear whose purse will win out. The WSJ article recounts the charm offensive by the Biden administration, including an October visit by a National Security Council delegation which gifted the president’s son (and head of the nation’s security forces), Mr. Obiang Mangue, with “a silver platter engraved with the U.S. presidential seal.” As much as the Obiangs no doubt appreciate such remembrances, it may seem more significant to them that Beijing is slinging money at them, while Washington has a history of bringing them up on corruption charges.
The Journal reports very little success at getting anyone from Equatorial Guinea to answer questions for the 6 December article. It does note, however, that shortly after the American visit in October, “Mr. Obiang, the president, spoke by phone with Chinese President Xi Jinping, after which Beijing put out a statement highlighting that ‘Equatorial Guinea has always regarded China as its most important strategic partner.’”
WSJ further observes that “China helps train and arm the Equatorial Guinean police.”
Also of note: Jon Finer (Principal Deputy National Security Advisor), who headed the October visit, was in Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, and Mauritania from 18-20 October 2021. It was after this expedition that President Obiang had the phone call with Xi Jinping. Also shortly after the U.S. visit, Russian media reported that Russian navy destroyer Vice Admiral Kulakov (an Udaloy-class destroyer), which was deployed in the Gulf of Guinea, rescued a Panama-flagged container ship from pirates as it transited through the Gulf.
The Russians reported this on 25 October 2021, and although a date hasn’t been given, the incident would have occurred within a few days of the Finer visit and the Xi phone call. Vice Admiral Kulakov is a Northern Fleet ship; in the last decade, Russia’s navy has resumed the Cold War pattern of operating off the West coast of Africa, and recently has increased the frequency of such deployments. On this deployment, Kulakov patrolled in the Mediterranean before moving to West Africa, and reportedly conducted an antipiracy drill in the Gulf of Guinea earlier in October.
Getting busy in the Gulf of Guinea. The Biden administration may need to step up its game.
Feature image: Xi Jinping (Televised address, CGTN video, YouTube).