China-US battle looms over Equatorial Guinea

The great-power skirmish over the tiny African nation reflects the tension between Washington and Beijing

The United States and China are at odds over a tiny country on the African coast.

Citing classified US intelligence reports, the Wall Street Journal reported that China intends to establish its first permanent military presence on the Atlantic Ocean in Equatorial Guinea.

Officials said the reports raise the prospect that Chinese warships would be able to rearm and refit opposite the East Coast of the US – your basic doorway to the Atlantic – a threat that is setting off alarm bells at the White House and Pentagon.

Principal US Deputy National Security Adviser Jon Finer visited Equatorial Guinea in October on a mission to persuade President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo and his son and heir apparent, Vice-President Teodoro “Teodorin” Nguema Obiang Mangue, to reject China’s overtures.

“As part of our diplomacy to address maritime-security issues, we have made clear to Equatorial Guinea that certain potential steps involving [Chinese] activity there would raise national-security concerns,” a senior Biden administration official told the WSJ.

The great-power skirmish over a country that rarely draws outside attention reflects the rising tensions between Washington and Beijing.

Taiwan status

Already the two most powerful nations in the world are sparring over the status of Taiwan, China’s lead in hypersonic missile technology, the detainment of up to one million Uighurs, and other issues.

Worldwide, the US finds itself trying to block China from projecting its military power from new overseas bases. They range from Cambodia to the United Arab Emirates, the WSJ reported.

Currently, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy has only one base outside of China, in Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa. According to the Washington Post, Chinese entities financed and built Africa’s biggest port, a railway to Ethiopia, and the country’s first overseas naval base.

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Under the sea, they are building a cable that will transmit data across a region that spans from Kenya to Yemen. The cable will connect to an internet hub housing servers mostly run by China’s state-owned telecom companies.

The Chinese facility has a pier capable of docking an aircraft carrier and nuclear submarines, according to the US Africa Command. It is also six miles from the largest US base in Africa, Camp Lemonnier, which is home to 4,500 US troops.

Meanwhile, despite shutting facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US still maintains nearly 800 military bases, housing 138,000 soldiers, in more than 70 countries across the globe.

Russia has an estimated 26 to 40 in nine countries, mostly former Soviet Republics, as well as in Syria and Vietnam. The UK, France, and Turkey have four to 10 bases each. India, Japan, South Korea, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands have an estimated one to three foreign bases.

In Equatorial Guinea, the Chinese appear to have an eye on Bata. The latter already has a Chinese-built deep-water commercial port on the Gulf of Guinea, and excellent highways to the interior of Central Africa.

‘Naval facility’

The “most significant threat” from China would be “a militarily useful naval facility on the Atlantic coast of Africa,” General Stephen Townsend, the commander of the US Africa Command, testified in the US Senate in April.

“By militarily useful, I mean something more than a place that they can make port calls and get gas and groceries. I’m talking about a port where they can rearm with munitions and repair naval vessels,” he said.

Equatorial Guinea, a former Spanish colony with a population of 1.4 million, secured independence in 1968, the WSJ reported. The capital, Malabo, is on the island of Bioko, while Bata is the largest city on the mainland section of the country, which is wedged between Gabon and Cameroon.

Obiang is the longest-serving president in the world, having ruled for more than 40 years.  In fact, the discovery of huge offshore oil and gas reserves in 1996 allegedly allowed members of his family to spend lavishly on exotic cars, mansions, and other luxuries, according to a US Justice Department investigation.

General Stephen Townsend, the commander of the US Africa Command. Photo: South Africa Command

Human Rights Watch and other groups have complained of “relentless repression” of civil society during his reign, along with “staggering corruption that has siphoned off the country’s oil wealth.” 

As for the president’s son, his Instagram account shows him meeting world leaders such as the Pope and Israel’s prime minister, playing polo, or posing on a private jet. He has also amassed a fortune of more than US$300 million “through corruption and money laundering,” the US government stated.

American intelligence agencies began picking up indications of China’s military intentions in Equatorial Guinea in 2019. During the closing days of the Trump administration, a senior Pentagon official visited the country, but the approach apparently left the Obiangs uncertain about how seriously the US took China’s military aspirations.

The Biden White House has sought to deliver a sharper message: It would be shortsighted of Equatorial Guinea to insert itself between the front lines of US-China global competition.

Accidental explosion

At the same time, the US has taken steps to improve relations. In March, the US offered aid after an apparently accidental ammunition explosion leveled an army base near Bata, killing at least 100 people. But that might be too late.

China already helps train and arm the Equatorial Guinean police, the WSJ reported.

“China doesn’t just build a military base like the US. The Chinese model is very, very different. It combines civilian as well as security elements,” Paul Nantulya, a research associate at the Pentagon-funded Africa Center for Strategic Studies, said.

Chinese state-owned companies have built 100 commercial ports around Africa in the past two decades, according to Chinese government data. Equatorial Guinea relies on US oil companies to extract offshore resources that have made the country the richest on the sub-Saharan mainland.

But the country also faces a growing threat from pirates and illegal fishing in its waters on the Gulf of Guinea.

Sources: Wall Street Journal, The Nation, The Washington Post, The Hill, The Daily Mail