China is exploring the possibility of building its first military base on the Atlantic ocean, according to classified intelligence reports viewed by the Wall Street Journal.
The proposed host for the military base is Equatorial Guinea, a small central African country of approximately 1.4 million people. Politically, Equatorial Guinea is a one-party state ruled by President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasongo for the past 42 years. The country consistently ranks among the worst in the world on human rights, with Freedom House assigning a zero score on political rights, lower than Eritrea, Iran, or Chad. Its economy is dominated by resource extraction, with crude petroleum exports accounting for 90 percent of government revenues. China is Equatorial Guinea’s largest trading partner.
The precise site is speculated to be the small deepwater port at Bata, the largest city in the country. The commercial port was overhauled and expanded from 2008-2014 with Chinese financing. Another infrastructure project expanded the highway network from Bata to Niefang in the east of the country. Taken together, the projects helped lay the groundwork for greater commercial penetration of central Africa, notably into Gabon and the Republic of Congo.
A military base in Equatorial Guinea would represent a clear geopolitical win for Beijing by expanding its global network of sites for re-fueling, repairing, and re-supplying, thus increasing the blue water capabilities of the PLA Navy (PLAN). Currently there is only one such facility, located in Djibouti, a country that plays host to a slew of other foreign militaries, including those of Japan, France, and the United States. A second facility has long been rumored for the port at Gwadar, Pakistan, which serves as the linchpin of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. At this point the basic infrastructure has already been laid at Gwadar; all that’s left is for PLAN vessels to start making port regular port calls.
Other attempts at converting civilian facilities (nearly always built by Chinese state-owned companies over the past two decades) into military sites have been rumored in the United Arab Emirates, Kenya, Seychelles, Tanzania, and Angola.
The US response
Unsurprisingly, the possibility of any new PLAN base is pushed back on by the US authorities, and this is doubly true in the case of Equatorial Guinea due to its relative proximity to Washington’s backyard. However, the US response in this case outlines how the emerging ‘Cold War light’ dynamic between China and the United States might create problems for other US foreign policy objectives, notably the advancement of human rights and a ‘rules based international order.’
First and foremost, US-Equatorial Guinea relations have been a fraught affair for the latter half of President Mbasongo’s reign. Despite the ongoing presence of US oil majors, the country has often been cited for a litany of human rights transgressions; for example, torture, arbitrary detention, and severe limits on the media and peaceful assembly. Such issues have produced open breaches in bilateral relations, such as a long-running DOJ case against Vice President Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue – son of the president – where the vice president was found guilty of corruption while serving as minister of agriculture and forestry in 2011.
Bilateral relations with the United States contrast starkly with those of China, which, as elsewhere, are no-strings-attached on matters of good governance. China has provided valuable financing to meet Equatorial Guinea’s infrastructure needs, and provided equipment and training for the country’s (oft brutal) security forces, which happen to be headed up by the very same Vice President Mangue who is the frequent target of Western sanctions (the UK joined the DOJ earlier this year, applying unilateral sanctions for a slew of lavish purchases, including Michael Jackson’s bejewelled white glove).
These divergent diplomatic priorities complicate US efforts to convince the government of Equatorial Guinea to rebuff Beijing’s attempts to establish a military base. In a development highly reminiscent of the Cold War, Washington has changed tack recently, adopting a conciliatory rather than scolding tone, likely owing to growing geopolitical concerns. The assets seized in the previous investigation of Vice President Mangue have been redistributed to the country in the form of COVID-19 vaccine assistance, and a recent improvement in State Department human trafficking ratings might pave the way to greater official maritime assistance from Washington.
There is another type of leverage that the United States and other Western countries hold: the ability to either crack down or look the other way on vast amounts of allegedly illicit wealth held by the president, his family, and his close associates. This wealth has already produced judicial reckonings in the United States, France, and the United Kingdom.
It is here where Washington could actually turn the screws on the regime if it wanted to. However, doing so would all but assure that Equatorial Guinea remains firmly in China’s orbit for the foreseeable future. Herein lies the threat of this new Cold War dynamic to Washington’s progressive foreign policy objectives: the better governance standards envisioned by initiatives like Build Better World may create geopolitical headaches for the Pentagon by alienating strategically valuable authoritarian regimes. This is a dynamic that we should get used to. Because even if Washington manages to beat back the Beijing charm offensive this time, there’s no shortage of military-viable commercial ports in the world, and no shortage of states who will seek to gain by playing one superpower off against the other.