US aims to thwart China’s plan for Atlantic base in Africa

US is intensifying its campaign to persuade Equatorial Guinea to reject China’s bid to build a military base. (AP)
US is intensifying its campaign to persuade Equatorial Guinea to reject China’s bid to build a military base. (AP)


  • An American delegation wants to convince Equatorial Guinea against giving Beijing a launchpad in waters the U.S. considers its backyard

The Biden administration is intensifying its campaign to persuade Equatorial Guinea to reject China’s bid to build a military base on the country’s Atlantic Coast.

A delegation of senior U.S. diplomatic and military personnel plans to visit the small Central African nation next week, according to government officials, and is expected to discuss American counter-piracy assistance and other inducements intended to convince Equatorial Guinean President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo to spurn Beijing’s advances.

The delegation will be led by the State Department’s top Africa official, Molly Phee, and Maj. Gen. Kenneth Ekman of the military’s Africa Command.

The visit coincides with rising American concern about China’s global expansionism and its pursuit of a permanent military presence on waters the U.S. considers home turf.

“We’d really, really not like to see a Chinese facility" on the Atlantic, said Tibor Nagy, Ms. Phee’s predecessor as assistant secretary of state for African affairs.

The Wall Street Journal reported last year that classified U.S. intelligence reports suggest China intends to build its first Atlantic base in Equatorial Guinea, likely in the city of Bata. Bata already has a Chinese-built commercial port with water deep enough to dock naval vessels.

The head of U.S. Africa Command, Gen. Stephen Townsend, later repeated the reports’ findings, telling Voice of America in January that Beijing is “intent on building a military air base and/or naval facility in Equatorial Guinea."

A Chinese Embassy spokesperson in Washington didn’t comment directly on Beijing’s aspirations on Africa’s west coast, but added that “China is committed to a defensive national defense policy and is always a builder of world peace."

Chinese state-owned companies are building ports and other infrastructure all across Africa, from highways in Kenya to hospitals in Equatorial Guinea’s hinterlands. A military base in Bata would fit the Chinese model of integrating commercial and political ends, China experts say, because it would both give China’s military a place to refit and rearm warships in the Atlantic and give Chinese companies access to the interior of Central Africa via Equatorial Guinea’s excellent highways.

The U.S. is hoping to quash any deal before it is signed, and Equatorial Guinea’s leaders appear aware of the potential leverage they now hold.

In December, the president’s son and heir apparent, Vice President Teodoro “Teodorin" Nguema Obiang Mangue, tweeted: “China is the model of a friendly nation and strategic partner, but, for now, there is no agreement."

In October last year, a senior White House official visited Mr. Obiang and his son in Malabo—the capital city, situated on the island of Bioko—to raise U.S. objections to China’s basing plans.

“We’re not asking [Equatorial Guinea] to choose between China and us," Gen. Townsend told VOA. “What we’re asking them to do is consider their other international partners and their concerns, because a Chinese military base in Equatorial Guinea is of great concern to the U.S. and all of their other partners."

Equatorial Guinea was Spain’s only colony in sub-Saharan Africa. Since its independence in 1968, the country has been ruled by members of a single family.

Mr. Obiang came to power in 1979, after overthrowing his infamously brutal uncle, Francisco Macias.

Successive U.S. administrations have condemned Mr. Obiang for his regime’s alleged corruption, human-rights abuses and dictatorial rule.

In a 2014 civil settlement, the Justice Department took possession of a mansion, a Ferrari and Michael Jackson memorabilia worth tens of millions of dollars, assets the government alleged that the president’s son Mr. Obiang Mangue acquired corruptly.

At the time, Mr. Obiang Mangue denied having gotten rich by raiding state coffers.

Oil minister Gabriel Mbaga Obiang Lima, another of the president’s children and often the regime’s public face, didn’t respond to requests for comment on the allegations against his family and U.S. concerns about Chinese military overtures.

U.S. concerns about corruption and human-rights violations limit the tools the Biden administration has at its disposal in negotiating with the Obiangs, according to U.S. diplomats.

But American officials believe they might make headway by helping Equatorial Guinea secure the pirate-infested waters of the Gulf of Guinea.

The country is split between a mainland section bordering Cameroon and Gabon and a set of islands in the Gulf of Guinea. Those waters generate the bulk of the country’s income, in the form of revenues from offshore oil and gas deposits developed by American energy companies.

In recent years, the Gulf of Guinea has seen a surge in piracy, threatening both the oil industry and sea traffic in Equatorial Guinea’s waters. Over the past two years, there have been 54 incidents in which pirates have succeeded in boarding commercial or private vessels, as well as four more that ended in gunfire, according to Gulf of Guinea-wide data collected by the British and French navies.

On Jan. 29, armed attackers in a speed boat approached a passenger boat between Bata and Malabo, prompting a firefight between the pirates and the boat’s security team.

“That has now become the most dangerous waterway in the world as far as piracy is concerned," said Mr. Nagy.

U.S. officials are linking maritime-security assistance to their effort to woo Equatorial Guinea away from the Chinese.

Gen. Townsend told reporters this month that the U.S. supports creation of an international task force to combat piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, akin to an effort that has apparently succeeded in eliminating such crimes on the other side of the continent, off the Horn of Africa.

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