What this means for Europe and America – European Council on Foreign Relations
In one of Africa’s smallest countries, one of the most important changes in China’s global strategy appears to be underway. Anonymous US officials have reportedly warned that Beijing is planning to establish a permanent military installation in Equatorial Guinea. If this is true, beyond the obvious strategic challenges posed by China owning a naval base on the Atlantic for the first time, this decision marks a new phase in the country’s African policy. This has far-reaching geopolitical implications.
Africa is the largest regional component of China’s $ 1,000 billion Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to reconfigure the architecture of global trade. The 46 African countries that have joined the BRI represent more than a billion people and cover about 20 percent of the Earth’s land mass. The consolidation of Chinese military might on the continent in the form of these new bases – combined with the expansion of Beijing’s already considerable economic influence – would alter the dynamics of global power, eroding American domination and relegating Europe to international business margin.
There are already around 10,000 Chinese companies in Africa, which, according to a 2017 McKinsey report, generated $ 180 billion in revenue per year and could reach $ 250 billion by 2025. These business opportunities have enabled 1 million Chinese citizens to make Africa their permanent home since 2000. As a result, China has established its military and security apparatus in Africa, but has succeeded in doing so largely without provoking an international reaction. In the two decades that have passed since the founding of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in 2000, Beijing has cleverly avoided installing a massive troop presence on the continent, such as those maintained by France and the United States. United States. Instead, Beijing has incorporated a military and security component into its economic partnerships with African states, making China’s defense presence in Africa part of the continent’s development fabric.
FOCAC summits take place every three years, and each agrees an action plan for each party to work on until the next meeting. Examination of the content of these plans reveals a clear trajectory for Beijing creating a Pan-African security architecture with China at its heart. The establishment of a naval base in Equatorial Guinea may signal that a new phase of this agenda has begun.
How Equatorial Guinea Became Part of China’s African Military Equation
Despite being home to the third smallest population in mainland Africa, Equatorial Guinea has the highest per capita GDP, thanks to its proven crude oil reserves of over one billion barrels. First discovered in 1996, Equatorial Guinea’s hydrocarbon wealth has been the economic foundation of President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo’s 41-year reign, marked by accusations of human rights abuses and accusations of embezzlement. by him and his family. Transparency International’s annual index ranks Equatorial Guinea fourth among the most corrupt countries in the world. The president’s son and probable successor, Vice-President Teodoro “Teodorin” Nguema Obiang Mangue, was recently convicted of embezzlement in France. The UK government froze his assets and banned him from entering the UK.
While US oil companies have led the bulk of Equatorial Guinea’s oil exploration and production, China has emerged as the country’s primary development partner. In 2006, Bank China Exim and the Government of Equatorial Guinea signed a $ 2 billion oil-backed purchase credit facility agreement for the development of the port of Bata as a modern deep-water port facility. The China Communications Construction Company completed the construction works for the port expansion in December 2014. The following year, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China signed a similar $ 2 billion financing agreement to support the development of infrastructure, local activities of Chinese companies and the government itself. Bank China Exim has given the government a half billion dollar line of credit. The port of Bata was finally inaugurated in 2019.
Meanwhile, declining revenues due to corruption, mismanagement and periods of falling oil prices meant that Equatorial Guinea was becoming increasingly indebted to China. In 2020, Beijing became the country’s main partner in the fight against the covid-19 pandemic, donating 100,000 Sinopharm vaccines and then selling an additional 500,000 vaccines to the Obiang government. In 2021, Equatorial Guinea’s debt to China stood at around 49.7% of GDP. Despite a last-minute US intervention in Equatorial Guinea, culminating with a visit by the senior US deputy national security adviser to discuss maritime security, the Obiang government appears to be moving forward with its plan to host a Chinese naval base. .
China’s advancement towards a Pan-African security architecture
Building a Chinese naval base in Equatorial Guinea has broader implications than just a warning about Beijing’s debt trap diplomacy. Since 2015, China has gradually developed a systematic pan-African approach to security on the continent. In September of the same year, speaking to the United Nations General Assembly, Chinese President Xi Jinping signaled Beijing’s emphasis on engaging African security mechanisms by pledging $ 100 million in assistance. military to the African Union to support the creation of an African standby force and the African capacity for immediate crisis response. At the FOCAC summit in December 2015, China announced that it would invest $ 60 billion in Africa – an unprecedented tripling of the amount pledged to FOCAC 2012. At the same meeting, China pledged to engage directly militarily with African partners and distribute $ 60 million in military assistance, provisions that have been incorporated into the FOCAC Action Plan (2016-2018).
In 2017, in the midst of its three years of intensifying military assistance and economic investment, China established its first overseas military base in Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa coast. Djibouti, located at the strategic entrance to the Red Sea Corridor opposite Yemen, is also home to military installations belonging to the United States, Germany, Spain, Italy, France, United Kingdom, Japan and Saudi Arabia. In line with China’s multilateral message – China is providing more troops to United Nations Security Council (UNSC) peacekeeping missions than all the other permanent members of the UNSC put together – Beijing was able to describe its unilateral military presence in part of the international effort to fight piracy and protect global commerce through the Suez Canal. China participated in the Shared Awareness and De-Confliction interface, which coordinates the respective anti-piracy efforts of the US multinational Combined Taskforce 151 and EU NAVFOR in waters off the Horn of Africa. . However, the establishment by China of its Djiboutian base, with a quay capable of accommodating aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines, is also part of its approach to consolidating a security presence in the United States. continent-wide.
China’s systematic pan-African security agenda was made more explicit during the 2018 FOCAC summit, whose action plan (2019-2021) called for the establishment of 50 separate programs to strengthen security coordination between China and its African partners across the continent, including the China-Africa Forum on Peace and Security and the China-Africa Forum on Law Enforcement and Security. Chinese state-owned companies are already spending $ 10 billion on security globally, a significant portion of which is spent in Africa to hire Chinese security support, ranging from regular military and civilian police to security companies. private â.
And then ?
The pursuit of large-scale trade infrastructure signals strategic intent, and the expansion of China’s military presence across Africa in the wake of the BRI is not unexpected. Beijing’s deft interweaving of economic soft power and hard power has produced a symbiosis between the growing number of Chinese business enterprises across Africa and the proliferation of China’s new security agreements across the continent. While the economy has played the main role in this complex of military-economic development, the dynamics seem to be entering a new phase.
News of the Equatorial Guinea naval base fell a week after the FOCAC 2021 summit on November 29-30 in Dakar, Senegal. Moving away from its traditional focus on infrastructure development, Beijing used the meeting to highlight a new theme of building “a China-Africa community with a common future in the new era.” As part of the promotion of this “China-Africa Community”, the 2022-2024 FOCAC Action Plan calls for the strengthening of “the implementation of the China-Africa peace and security plan” aimed at supporting “the construction of the African architecture of peace and security. . âIn the context of FOCAC’s two previous action plans, it seems clearer than ever that Beijing is aiming to consolidate a continental system of security relations between Africa and China.
Equatorial Guinea offered China the opportunity to establish a military presence on the Atlantic. But the country’s government is not alone among African countries heavily indebted to China and in which Beijing plays a central role in economic development. It is possible that other Chinese naval bases will still appear on the Atlantic coast of Africa. Whether or not it builds new such facilities in the short term, Beijing’s consolidation of a Pan-African security architecture will undoubtedly lead to their establishment in the long term. In such circumstances, the African continent itself would serve as a forward base for Beijing to project its power directly to North America and Europe.
Experience has taught – as shown in 2015 when Beijing started large military spending in Africa – that additional investment could also signal a new and more transformative involvement in Africa’s political and economic development. Whatever happens, the continued delivery deficit of the United States and Europe in economic engagement with Africa compared to China will have a growing geopolitical cost.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications represent the opinions of its individual authors only.