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China has already established its first overseas naval base in Djibouti, on Africa’s east coast. Photo: AFP

China’s naval plans in Africa are threat in Atlantic, says US general

  • Potential Chinese naval base on Africa’s Atlantic coast ‘concerns me greatly’, General Stephen Townsend says
  • Beijing has approached several countries about establishing a naval facility that would help it base warships in the Atlantic as well as Pacific, he says
The top US general for Africa is warning that a growing threat from China may come not just from the waters of the Pacific but from the Atlantic as well.

General Stephen Townsend said Beijing was looking to establish a large navy port capable of hosting submarines or aircraft carriers on Africa’s western coast. Townsend said China had approached countries stretching from Mauritania to south of Namibia, intent on establishing a naval facility.

If realised, that prospect would enable China to base warships in its expanding navy in the Atlantic as well as Pacific oceans.


Argentine coast guard opens fire on Chinese fishing boat

Argentine coast guard opens fire on Chinese fishing boat
“They’re looking for a place where they can re-arm and repair warships. That becomes militarily useful in conflict,” said Townsend, who heads US Africa Command. “They’re a long way toward establishing that in Djibouti. Now they’re casting their gaze to the Atlantic coast and wanting to get such a base there.”

Townsend’s warnings come as the Pentagon shifts its focus from the counterterrorism wars of the last two decades to the Indo-Pacific region and threats from great power adversaries like China and Russia. The Biden administration views China’s rapidly expanding economic influence and military might as America’s primary long-term security challenge.

US military commanders around the globe, including several who may lose troops and resources to bolster growth in the Pacific, caution that China’s growing assertiveness isn’t happening only in Asia. And they argue that Beijing is aggressively asserting economic influence over countries in Africa, South America and the Middle East, and is pursuing bases and footholds there.

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“The Chinese are outmanoeuvring the US in select countries in Africa,” said Townsend. “Port projects, economic endeavours, infrastructure and their agreements and contracts will lead to greater access in the future. They are hedging their bets and making big bets on Africa.”

China’s first overseas naval base was built years ago in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa and it is steadily increasing its capacity. Townsend said as many as 2,000 military personnel were at the base, including hundreds of marines handling security there.

“They have arms and munitions for sure. They have armoured combat vehicles. We think they will soon be basing helicopters there to potentially include attack helicopters,” said Townsend.


First PLA live ammunition drill in Djibouti

First PLA live ammunition drill in Djibouti

For some time, many thought that China was working to establish a navy base in Tanzania, on Africa’s eastern coast, which has had a strong, long-standing military relationship with Beijing. But Townsend said it appeared there had been no decision on that yet.

He said that although China had been trying hard to get a base in Tanzania, it was not the location he was most concerned about.

“[That is] on the Indian Ocean side. I want it to be in Tanzania instead of on the Atlantic coast. The Atlantic coast concerns me greatly,” he said, pointing to the relatively shorter distance from Africa’s west coast to the US.

In nautical miles, a base on Africa’s northern Atlantic coast could be substantially closer to the US than military facilities in China are to America’s west coast.

More specifically, other US officials say the Chinese have been eyeing locations for a port in the Gulf of Guinea.

The US defence department’s 2020 report on China’s military power said China had probably considered adding military facilities to support its naval, air and ground forces in Angola, among other locations. And it noted that the large amount of oil and liquefied natural gas imported from Africa and the Middle East made those regions a high priority for China over the next 15 years.


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Chinese cash funds African coal plants despite environmental concerns

Henry Tugendhat, a senior policy analyst with the United States Institute of Peace, said China had a lot of economic interests on Africa’s west coast, including fishing and oil, and had helped finance and build a large commercial port in Cameroon.

He said that any effort by Beijing to get a naval port on the Atlantic coast would be an expansion of China’s military presence. But the desire for ocean access, he said, may be primarily for economic gain, rather than military capabilities.

Townsend and other regional military commanders laid out their concerns about China during recent congressional hearings. He, along with Admiral Craig Faller, head of US Southern Command, and General Frank McKenzie, head of US Central Command, are battling to retain their military forces, aircraft and surveillance assets as the Pentagon continues to review the shift to great power competition.

Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin is conducting a global posture review to determine whether the US’ military might is positioned where it needs to be, and in the right numbers, around the world to best maintain global dominance. That review is expected to be finished in late summer.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Outreach in Africa ‘poses danger to US from Atlantic’