WHEN CHINA began building its first overseas naval base in 2016, in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa, Chinese officials tried to allay Western anxiety about their country’s expanded military footprint. They said the outpost (pictured) was only for supporting multinational anti-piracy efforts, helping to secure vital shipping lanes and enabling China to protect its citizens in the region. Five years later, the facility in Djibouti remains the Chinese armed forces’ only foreign bastion.
But Chinese officials are quietly looking at the possibility of building more. In November the Pentagon’s annual report on China’s military power identified 13 countries where, it believes, China has probably considered locating other bases. They range from Tajikistan in Central Asia to Angola on the Atlantic coast of Africa. American officials believe China has made secret basing or port-access agreements with several of them, including Cambodia and the United Arab Emirates.
It may help China that there are nearly 100 civilian ports overseas in which it has some sway as an investor or operator. The Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a think-tank in Washington, has identified nearly 50 ports in sub-Saharan Africa where China is involved, sometimes just in building work. CSIS says China may use them “to increase its military and political reach” (see map). Chinese navy ships have visited some.
On December 5th the Wall Street Journal said China wanted a naval presence in Equatorial Guinea, citing American intelligence reports. A base there would give China’s navy its first permanent foothold on the Atlantic side of Africa. It would be nearly 10,000km from Washington, but officials there still worry. In October the American government was spooked enough to send Jon Finer, the deputy national security adviser, to visit the tiny oil-producing country of 1.4m people and advise its leaders to resist China’s overtures. Mr Finer is believed to have told officials in Equatorial Guinea that allowing China to open a base would raise national-security concerns in America.
China is becoming a more adventurous naval power. It has dramatically beefed up its fleet this century, amassing more ships (though not more tonnage) than America’s navy. But most of these vessels keep to Indo-Pacific waters. It is unclear whether China has military ambitions farther afield. The Chinese navy cannot hope to sustain an Atlantic-facing armada that would rival that of America and its allies, whose ships, bases and supply lines dominate the central and north Atlantic.
It may be that China’s reason for wanting more access to ports for its navy is much as it described its motives in Djibouti : securing shipping lanes for Chinese trade, fighting piracy and protecting Chinese citizens abroad. The navy began to feel a more pressing need for far-flung bases in 2011, when it helped conduct an emergency evacuation of 30,000 Chinese citizens from Libya as that country descended into civil war.
In the past decade China’s growing demand for imports ranging from oil to copper, and the expansion of its commercial activity abroad, have increased its concerns about keeping trade routes safe. Until the pandemic struck it had 1.5m workers in foreign countries. Chinese military white papers stress a need for the navy to protect such “overseas interests”.
But there may be other considerations. Chinese military analysts openly advocate pushing into waters far from home to divert American attention and resources from Chinese waters, writes Ryan Martinson of the US Naval War College. He notes a book by Hu Bo of Peking University, in which the author acknowledges that China’s navy could not compete with America for supremacy of faraway seas, but suggests it could “pin down” some American forces that might otherwise be sent to East Asia. Mr Martinson also cites Liu Zhe, the captain of China’s first aircraft-carrier, the Liaoning, who wrote in a well-publicised essay in 2017 that “the farther away we are from our territorial sea, the more secure will be the motherland behind us.” Establishing bases facing the Atlantic would certainly get America’s attention.
But Isaac Kardon, a colleague of Mr Martinson’s at the Naval War College, notes China’s leaders have not parroted blustery rhetoric about tying down American ships. They would prefer to set up bases without antagonising America. As it happens, most countries are reluctant to rile the United States by hosting Chinese forces. Agreeing to a Chinese base would be a transactional arrangement, doing little to improve the security of the host. Unlike America, China disapproves of alliances and abhors the use of its forces in any combat role in other countries’ conflicts.
The Gulf of Guinea would be a logical place to look for a base. Piracy is a scourge there, as it is in the Gulf of Aden off Djibouti, so China could plausibly argue that its help is needed. A Chinese company has built a deepwater commercial port at Bata in Equatorial Guinea. It could adapt that for Chinese warships. And the family-run dictatorship in Equatorial Guinea happens to be the sort that China is well-practised at doing business with in Africa: brutal, corrupt and in a financial shambles. The International Monetary Fund approved a bail-out in 2019.
It was an unexpected reversal of fortune for Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, the vice-president who is also the president’s son, to receive Mr Finer in October. In recent years America and its allies have confiscated allegedly ill-gotten luxury assets from him (America says it is using the proceeds to fund covid-19 vaccines and other medical aid for the country). The vice-president posted a video clip of the meeting on social media, and another in which he expressed gratitude for a diplomatic gift he had received in connection with the visit: a silver platter with a presidential seal.
A Chinese base at Bata would probably pose little serious threat to America, says Mr Kardon, unless it were to include a facility for Chinese submarines. But building one would be virtually impossible to conceal. Equatorial Guinea would be unlikely to risk America’s anger by letting China do so. No clear evidence has come to light that China has any such intention.
A week after Mr Finer’s visit, China’s president, Xi Jinping, talked by phone to his counterpart, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo. Chinese officials said Mr Obiang described China as Equatorial Guinea’s “most important strategic partner”. On December 7th his son, the vice-president, tweeted a response to the Journal’s story about the base. “China is a model of a friendly country and a strategic partner but, for now, there is no such agreement,” he wrote. He quickly added: “Remember also that Equatorial Guinea is a sovereign and independent country and can sign co-operation agreements with any friendly country.” American officials may want to schedule a follow-up trip. ■
This article appeared in the China section of the print edition under the headline “Harbouring no malice?”