US scrambles as China makes moves to build first permanent military base on Atlantic side of Africa

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The Chinese military is looking to build its first permanent base along Africa’s Atlantic coast, but the Biden administration, which opposes the plan, has already begun diplomatic efforts to kill the deal, according to a Sunday report.

Citing classified U.S. intelligence reports, U.S. officials told The Wall Street Journal that China may be making moves to construct a base in Equatorial Guinea’s port city of Bata, adding that the China Road & Bridge Co. upgraded the deep-water port there between 2009-2014.

The paper added that U.S. intelligence officials first discovered China’s interest in the port in 2019.

U.S. officials did not describe the intelligence in detail, but did say that those reports “raise the prospect that Chinese warships would be able to rearm and refit opposite the East Coast” of the United States, “a threat that is setting off alarm bells at the White House and Pentagon,” the WSJ reported.

The paper noted that principal deputy U.S. National Security Adviser Jon Finer visited the African nation in October in a bid to convince President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo and his son and heir apparent, Vice President Teodoro “Teodorin” Nguema Obiang Mangue, to push back on China’s bid.

“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 potential for China building a permanent naval base in Equatorial Guinea, a country that does not garner much international attention normally, is adding to growing tensions between the U.S. and China that include the fate of Taiwan, Beijing’s testing of hypersonic missiles, and the origins of COVID-19, among others.

Globally, meantime, the Biden administration and the Pentagon are playing defense in attempting to stall or block Chinese military expansion in other countries including the United Arab Emirates and Cambodia.

“In Equatorial Guinea, the Chinese likely have an eye on Bata, according to a U.S. official,” the WSJ reported. “Bata already has a Chinese-built deep-water commercial port on the Gulf of Guinea, and excellent highways link the city to Gabon and the interior of Central Africa.”

In April, Army Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), told the Senate that “the most significant threat” posed by China would be “a militarily useful naval facility on the Atlantic coast of Africa.”

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

The paper reported that no one from the Obiang government responded to requests for comment, even though questions were submitted in writing.

The WSJ reported that China’s intentions for the Port of Bata were unearthed in 2019, adding that in the waning days of then-President Donald Trump’s administration, a top Pentagon official traveled to Equatorial Guinea to discuss the issue. However, “the approach apparently left the Obiangs uncertain about how seriously the U.S. took China’s military aspirations,” the paper added.

But the Biden administration has been more direct and pointed to the African country, instructing the Obiang government not to put itself in the middle of U.S.-China competition, the WSJ reported.

At the same time, the administration has engaged in more diplomatic outreach: Offering aid following an explosion in March that leveled an army base and killed around 100 people; having Equatorial Guinean troops participated in U.S.-led naval exercises in the region over the summer; and having a U.S. Navy ship anchor off the Bata port, with the ship’s captain inviting local officials and naval personnel on board to watch firefighter training.

“At the same time, the U.S. wants to convey a nuanced message: Washington isn’t asking Equatorial Guinea to abandon its extensive ties with China, but just to keep relations within bounds the U.S. considers unthreatening,” the WSJ added.

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