U.S. officials seek to counter China move on potential naval base in Atlantic

In the Atlantic: China, persisting.

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.)

U.S. Navy personnel provide assistance to Equatorial Guinea security forces following a massive explosion in Bata, Eq. Guinea in March 2021. USN image, U.S. Sixth Fleet

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.

Chinese outreach into Atlantic. Bing map; author annotation

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.

Gulf of Guinea:  Brazilian Navy frigate Independencia (F-44) executes a manuever on the port side of the Expeditionary Sea Base USS Hershel “Woody” Williams (ESB 4) during manuevering drills, Aug. 22, 2021. (US Navy Photo)

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.

Russian destroyer RFS Vice Admiral Kulakov. File. Wikipedia: Ministry of Defense of Russia – https://function.mil.ru/news_page/world/more.htm?id=12324588@egNews

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).

5 thoughts on “U.S. officials seek to counter China move on potential naval base in Atlantic”

    1. I think those started years ago.

      But it will be no surprise if we discover more recent ones.

  1. Getting busy in the Gulf of Guinea. The Biden administration may need to step up its game.
    Yeah, right after Blinken gets his daily briefing from Kenya’s Pres. Kenyatta on What can we do to stabilize Ethiopia before the Horn of Africa and Red Sea fall to chaos?

    Meanwhile, NSA Jake Sullivan has gone silent since his Nov. 11 speech in Australia on “Situations of Strength” which was lifted from Jake’s late 2016 work with Brookings:

    Building “Situations of Strength” A National Security Strategy for the United States https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/fp_201702_ofc_report_web.pdf

    revealed in Margot Cleveland’s Nov. 12 dive into Brookings & Russiagate: https://thefederalist.com/2021/11/12/why-special-counsel-john-durham-is-investigating-the-brookings-institution/

    The good ? news is China’s port in Gwadar, Balochistan, Pakistan is looking like a real Albatross.

    Whatever happened to Iran’s Makran and Sahand?

  2. Makran and Sahand got home in September.


    I’d have to check some Twitter exchanges at the time, but IIRC, there was evidence, not fully confirmed, that the ships lingered in the Bay of Biscay for several days after leaving the Baltic, and were never confirmed to have entered the Med on the way home. There was a long stretch of fog-bound days for coast-watchers in Gibraltar in which they couldn’t swear the Iranian ships hadn’t entered, but it was never certain. Makran seemed to be using a fake ID at the time, as she also seemed to do just before entering the Baltic in July.

    I’ve never pursued the disposition of the fast boats on deck down to the last detail, but Makran still had them on leaving the Baltic.

    In the spirit of he exchange and the season (sort of; there’s a color connection 🙂 ):

    1. TY for the update on Makran & Sahand.
      Still think/wonder if those fast boats were picked up by Algeria.

      Always enjoy Masterpieces of Japan.

      Adding, Jake re-appeared today, on Ukraine.

      Very good report, with far more detail about the collapse of AFG economy than has been reported by news media in other parts of the world:

      6 December 2021. Beyond Emergency Relief: Averting Afghanistan’s Humanitarian Catastrophe. International donors cut off all but emergency aid to Afghanistan after the Taliban’s takeover in August. Months later, the state is collapsing and a humanitarian disaster is looming. […]
      https://www.crisisgroup.org/asia/south-asia/afghanistan/317-beyond-emergency-relief-averting-afghanistans-humanitarian-catastrophe also in 48 page pdf https://d2071andvip0wj.cloudfront.net/317-afghanistans-humanitarian-catastrophe.pdf

      Turkey & Qatar are going to pitch them running Kabul Airport and manage aid, which might be part of the OIC plan.

      And, confirmation of what I’ve been observing for months, especially this week:

      Dec 7: AlUla Declaration has turned the page on Gulf tensions
      […] The crown prince on Monday began his tour of the five other GCC capitals when he landed in Muscat. His journey will develop what he started in AlUla in January. His visit was preceded by news of further breakthroughs as a result of the reconciliation agreement: Turkey expressed its desire to expand the circle of reconciliation project with Saudi Arabia under the auspices of the emir of Qatar; the visit of Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan to Ankara two weeks ago; this week’s visit of the UAE national security adviser to Tehran, where he met with the Iranian president; and the Saudi-Iranian meetings that took place over recent months in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad. […] In reality, the increase in the level and number of tensions in the region did not originate from a vacuum, but rather was an indirect result of the 2011 revolutions, which caused simultaneous collapses in regional states and created voids and crises far exceeding the management capacities of these countries. These then turned into failures and wars in Libya, Syria and Yemen. The crises continue to threaten the stability of Iraq, Sudan, Tunisia and Lebanon. […] Better days await the whole region, with the reconciliation efforts going beyond Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Bahrain. […] https://www.arabnews.com/node/1982621

      And, written with zero mention of Jared Kushner + Berkowitz & Hook role in that Jan. 5 2021 Al-Ula Declaration! They were mentioned in Egypt when it happened: https://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/2/8/398242/World/Region/Gulf-summit-ends-Qatar-boycott-.aspx

      Still posting daily on all that, and more at LU, with my bird metaphors.

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