Is China Building a New String of Pearls in the Atlantic Ocean?

On December 5, the Wall Street Journal reported that China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is seeking to establish a permanent military facility in the Central African nation of Equatorial Guinea. While the Equatorial Guinean government has so far denied the reports, U.S. defense officials have raised concerns about the possible plan. If the reports are true, and if China is able to construct a military base on the Atlantic Ocean, it would mark an important step forward in the PLA’s strategy to expand its global power projection capabilities and would add to China’s current effort to build a global network of dual-use facilities that could be transformed into forward operating bases.

If plans for the base move ahead, the Port of Bata is the most suitable for any future People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) basing. The port is located on the central mainland coastline and is home to Bata, the country’s largest city (population 425,000). Along with the Port of Malabo (which is located near the capital of Malabo and on the island of Bioko 190 kilometers northwest of the mainland), the Port of Bata is one of the country’s two largest ports. It consists of a commercial port and a navy and civilian boat basin.

Bata is a modern open port that possesses two long (531 meters and 550 meters) commercial piers surrounded by a well-defined and maintained seawall. Both piers could easily handle any vessel within the PLAN order-of-battle. Additionally, it is situated adjacent to an oil facility to facilitate refueling and a warehouse area and intermodal yard to facilitate resupply. Should it be desired, the overall design of the port could easily allow for its expansion further into the Atlantic Ocean and to the southeast on land.

A Chinese naval base in Bata would build on the sizeable Chinese presence in Equatorial Guinea, marking over five decades of engagement and represented by a large embassy and an equally significant trade mission. As is the case across Africa, China has engaged in large-scale investments in the country anchored primarily in infrastructure projects. Indeed, in 2006, the Export-Import Bank of China provided the initial funding for the construction of the Port of Bata, which was built by the state-owned China Communications Construction Company’s First Harbor Engineering Company in 2014. Another state-owned enterprise (SOE), the China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC), made significant upgrades to the port. Following a 2015 meeting between Xi Jinping and Equatorial Guinea’s President Teodor Obiang Nguema, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) announced a $2 billion agreement to provide “financial support” for the Equatorial Guinean government, as well as Chinese companies operating in the country. That same year, Huawei Marine Networks was awarded a contract by the Equatorial Guinean government to connect its submarine cable system into a wider network that extended as far as Europe. The Djibloho hydropower plant, which provides much of Bata’s electricity, was financed and constructed by Chinese state-owned firms and lenders.

At the same time, China has strengthened defense and security ties with Equatorial Guinea directly through bilateral engagements and indirectly by increasing its activities in the Gulf of Guinea. In 2014, the PLAN began port calls with Gulf countries and launched its first anti-piracy drills with local navies. From 2014 to 2019, China engaged in 39 military exchanges with Gulf counterparts, many involving PLAN vessels conducting anti-piracy operations. China’s military ties with Equatorial Guinea are still growing and China only held two military engagements with Equatorial Guinea during this period: both were senior level meetings with China’s minister of defense. Chinese companies have also stepped up and have constructed naval barracks and housing for Equatorial Guinea’s military. In 2020, the Chinese Central Military Commission further directed the PLA Air Force to deliver Covid-19 supplies to Malabo.

While China has yet to officially comment on its military intentions in Equatorial Guinea, Beijing has already started making a case for a military base in the Gulf of Guinea. In 2016, in response to questions about China’s military facility in Djibouti, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi explained that China would build “some necessary infrastructure and logistical capacities in regions with a concentration of Chinese interests.” China used its anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden and desire to secure critical international sea lines of communication as justification for Djibouti.

China is now doing the same in West Africa: the 2018 Forum on China-Africa Cooperation Beijing Action Plan states that “the African side applauds China’s escort missions in the Gulf of Aden . . . and encourages that China will do more to support Africa’s anti-piracy efforts in the Gulf of Guinea, and step up cooperation to safeguard the security of sea lanes, regional peace and stability.” Most recently, Chinese tabloid Global Times did not deny China’s military interest in West Africa and reaffirmed the increasing need for PLA “footholds in some distant waters" as China’s overseas interests expand.

The Wall Street Journal report thus places Equatorial Guinea in a very difficult position vis-à-vis China and the United States, as the government privileges relations with both powers and cannot afford to frustrate either one.

The United States has heavily invested in the oil sector, which has provided the regime great financial wealth and has turned the country into a middle-income nation. While the United States has denounced the regime’s human rights record, the country’s restricted political space, and corrupt governance, and no longer maintains a defense attaché resident in the country, Equatorial Guinea has nonetheless remained a valued U.S. partner, including in the fight against piracy in the Gulf of Guinea. The small, but influential, U.S. embassy in Malabo represents U.S. oil companies that proudly fly the star-spangled banner outside their headquarters.

Regardless of the outcome of the possible PLA base in Equatorial Guinea, China will continue to increase its global military influence. It will almost certainly establish additional overseas military facilities and access points and its ability to project power will expand. A new era of Chinese military capabilities has thus already arrived.

Bonny Lin is a senior fellow for Asian security and director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Jude Blanchette is Freeman Chair in China Studies at CSIS. Joseph S. Bermudez Jr. is senior fellow for imagery analysis with the iDeas Lab and Korea Chair at CSIS. Mvemba Phezo Dizolele is senior fellow and director of the Africa Program at CSIS.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Bonny Lin
Director, China Power Project and Senior Fellow, Asian Security