The US has countless military bases across the world, but Washington is particularly concerned about one that could pop up on the Atlantic Ocean.
With a population of 1.4 million, Equatorial Guinea is one of the smallest countries in Africa. The country possesses abundant offshore oil resources, making it the wealthiest across the sub-Saharan mainland in terms of per capita GDP.
Most of Equatorial Guinea’s oil reserves were discovered and have been extracted by American oil companies, making both the country’s ruling family, the Nguemas, and US firms rich while less than half of the country’s population does not have access to clean drinking water, according to the Human Development Index.
China, according to recent American intelligence reports, is looking to build its first permanent military base in the West African country on the Atlantic Ocean coast. If the Chinese plan goes ahead, it will be China’s first permanent military base on the Atlantic.
Despite the report placing China’s military ambitions in West Africa as a first, Ioannis Koskinas, a senior fellow at the international security program of New America, a US think-tank, sees a longer history.
“It should be clear that China didn’t just wake up in 2021 and start investing in West Africa. Just in Equatorial Guinea alone, China started investing in the Bata Port Rehabilitation and Expansion Project, in 2006,” says Koskinas.
According to US intelligence, Beijing will likely build the base in Bata, the largest city. China has already built a deep-water commercial port in Bata as Koskinas pointed out.
Fight for the Atlantic?
First, Equatorial Guinea is located in Africa's Atlantic coast, a region where the US military has long had a firm hold and does not want to see an adversary like China to gain a strategic base there, compromising US domination.
The base will allow the Asian giant to have “naval presence on the Atlantic,” according to Maj. Gen. Andrew Rohling, commander of the US Army Southern European Task Force—Africa.
“My sense is that there’s more to it than just the military base. This is likely a concern of what China does with a military footprint in West Africa,” Koskinas tells TRT World.
“Having Chinese military vessels in the Atlantic represents a new phase of strategic competition. It may be that China simply says, ‘if the US gets to send its carrier battle groups to the Western Pacific, China can send its ships to the Atlantic’,” he adds.
China’s first overseas military base was also in Africa’s Djibouti, located on the eastern part of the continent, straddling both the Indian Ocean and the strategic Suez Channel. Djibouti is a country with some similarities to Equatorial Guinea in terms of its small population and location.
As a result, China’s two choices for military bases in Africa appear to signal that the Asian giant wants military access to both the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, aiming to increase political competition with the US. Beijing and Washington have already experienced increasing tensions across the Pacific on which both countries have extensive coasts.
“China has global ambitions. The fact that some are just noticing is quite frankly a bit disturbing,” Koskinas says. A senior Biden administration has also described the Chinese intention to build a military base in the Atlantic coast as something that “would raise national-security concerns” of the US.
"The United States is concerned about increasing Chinese influence around the globe," says Edward Erickson, a former American military officer and a retired Professor of Military History from the Department of War Studies at the Marine Corps University.
"The new military bases themselves are not a direct threat to US interests or to US security, but they are "launch pads" or "lily pads" from which the Chinese can use military assistance to expand their political and economic influence," Erickson tells TRT World.
In October, due to increasing US concerns regarding the Chinese military base, Washington also sent the Biden administration’s deputy national security adviser to Equatorial Guinea to block Chinese deployment.
But at the same time, Washington describes any refusal to host American troops in any given country — which might see the US military presence as threatening their own national security — as anti-Americanism.
Despite China’s several overseas bases, the US has an unprecedented army presence across all seven continents, maintaining close to “800 military bases in more than 70 countries and territories abroad.” Some political groups in those hosting countries like Iraq definitely think that US troops threaten their own national security in various ways.
Why China chooses Equatorial Guinea
There are several West African states with a coast on the Atlantic Ocean, so why Equatorial Guinea?
It appears that the choice is a strategic one because Equatorial Guinea is both oil and gas-rich and at the same time ruled by an autocratic corrupt elite, which can be negotiated with easily by a foreign power like China, another autocratic state.
Since gaining its independence from Madrid in 1968, the former Spanish colony has been ruled by the same family. Current President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo has ruled the oil-rich country since 1979, when Mbasogo overthrew his uncle, Francisco Macias Nguema, a brutal leader who once claimed that fascist leader Adolf Hitler “saved Africa”.
While Equatorial Guinea has an overwhelmingly Black African population, all of its official languages are European languages like Spanish, not any of its native languages, showing the staying power of Western colonialism.
While Mbasogo’s autocratic management style is not so different from his uncle, he appears to be less brutal than his predecessor. In recent years, lavish lifestyle and expenses of Mbasogo’s son, Vice President Teodoro “Teodorin” Nguema Obiang Mangue, who is also heir apparent, has raised eyebrows in Washington.
US lawyers pursued Obiang Mangue, who loves to share his lavish lifestyle across his Instagram page much to the dismay of his fellow citizens, forcing him to return some of his proceeds.
“This fall, the Justice Department announced that it would steer $26.6 million of the surrendered assets back to Equatorial Guinea in the form of Covid-19 vaccines and other medical aid, bypassing the government,” said The Wall Street Journal, who was the first media outlet to publish the US intelligence findings over the Chinese base in Equatorial Guinea.
But US pressure might be pushing the West African country to move toward China, which has invested the country extensively in recent years, developing at least ten different projects ranging from building a deep-water port to training and arming the country’s security forces.
“Equatorial Guinea has always regarded China as its most important strategic partner,” said a recent statement from Beijing, showing the further rapprochement between the two countries.
Beijing’s tightening connections with Equatorial Guinea is the latest sign of a Chinese march across the African continent, where the Asian giant has built around hundred commercial ports in recent decades.
In a report to Congress this year, the Pentagon said China probably “considered” more African military bases in countries like Kenya, Seychelles, Tanzania and Angola, according to a Pentagon report.