Tue. Apr 16th, 2024
commander for U.S. forces in Africa (AFRICOM), General Stephen J. Townsend (Photo Credit| Africom)
By Eric Olander


The commander for U.S. forces in Africa (AFRICOM), General Stephen J. Townsend reiterated his assertion that China is looking to build a second military base in Africa, this time somewhere along the Atlantic coast.

In a wide-ranging interview with state-owned broadcaster Voice of America published on Friday, General Townsend said that China has been soliciting governments in West Africa, most notably Equatorial Guinea, for a basing deal:

“They’re putting chips down in all these countries on the Atlantic Coast. They know they won’t get a “yes” in many of those countries but by asking and trying to get a base in all of these countries, one or two of them may say yes. We think the place they’ve got traction now is Equatorial Guinea.

We’re not asking them (Equatorial Guinea) to choose between China and us. What we’re asking them to do is to consider their other international partners and their concerns because a Chinese military base in Equatorial Guinea is of great concern to the U.S. and all of their other partners.”

This is at least the third time in less than a year that General Townsend has made this assertion even though neither he nor the Pentagon has provided any evidence to confirm the claim.

At this point, all of the oxygen for this story is coming from U.S. government officials, as highlighted by a Wall Street Journal report last month that added prominence to the unsubstantiated claim, despite only quoting unnamed government sources.

What’s unusual is that Chinese think tanks, scholars, and state media have all been quite vocal in recent years about the need to expand the PLA’s overseas presence commensurate with China’s larger international footprint, including discussions of new bases in Asia and the Indian Ocean among other regions.

Yet other than a passing reference in a 2018 edition of the Ocean Development and Management Journal, there’s been no discussion of any kind in the Chinese security discourse about a new base on Africa’s Atlantic coast.

Acclaimed China scholar Elizabeth C. Economy addressed the issue in her new book, The World According to China, where she quoted an essay by three analysts at the PLA’s Institute of Military Transportation who spoke of the urgency for China to build more bases around the world, but yet none in West Africa:

“To protect our ever-growing overseas interests, we will progressively establish in Pakistan, United Arab Emirates, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Singapore, Indonesia, Kenya and other countries a logistical network based on various means, buying, renting, cooperating, to construct our overseas bases or overseas protection hubs.”

The PLA analysts featured in Economy’s book didn’t include Equatorial Guinea or any other West African country. This could be because it doesn’t make sense in the context of China’s core strategic interests, which tend to focus on securing oil lanes in the Middle East, expanding its influence in the Indian Ocean region and bolstering its already formidable naval presence in the South China Sea.

More remarkably, while General Townsend is sticking to his Atlantic base theory, he’s said nothing about the very real prospect of PLA Navy expansion in the Indian Ocean. In contrast to the silence on the Atlantic issue, there is actually a lot of chatter in the Chinese discourse on the Indian Ocean. It’s also notable that Foreign Minister Wang Yi has just wrapped up a five-nation Indian Ocean tour, including stops in Kenya and Eritrea.

It appears the General and his colleagues in the U.S. government may be looking in the wrong direction…

Why Does General Townsend Keep Talking About a Chinese Base in West Africa if There’s No Evidence?

SURVIVAL OF AFRICOM: The U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) had a near-death experience in 2019 when the Trump administration sought a major troop reduction and even consider a total pullout from the continent in order to redeploy forces to confront China and Russia in other parts of the world. 

Even though AFRICOM was saved by Congress, General Townsend likely wants to make sure this never happens again. Heightening alarm about China’s military presence in Africa could feed into this strategy. Focusing on the Atlantic coast could be aimed at triggering a more emotive reaction in Congress and in the media, who will see a Chinese naval presence in the Atlantic as a direct threat.

BUDGET POLITICS: Early on in Washington’s Global War on Terror, if an agency wanted to increase funding all it had to do was put “al-Qaeda” somewhere in the title of the proposal. After Osama bin Laden was killed and the al-Qaeda threat receded, the magic word became “ISIS.”

Now that ISIS is no longer a primary national security threat, the new money word is “China.”

It’s quite likely that General Townsend is playing the game of Washington budget politics. China may or may not be interested in building a base in Equatorial Guinea, but that may be beside the point. Just the fear that China could one day have an Atlantic military presence could be enough to spur lawmakers to allocate more funds to AFRICOM in response to the General’s claims.


SUGGESTED READING AND VIEWING:

Voice of AmericaVOA Exclusive: US AFRICOM Commander Says Mercenaries in Mali Among Growing Threats in Africa

Associated PressGeneral: China’s Africa outreach poses threat from Atlantic by Lolita Baldor

Global TimesWith nearly 600 overseas military bases, US falsely claims China is ‘building a new string of pearls’ by Song Zhongping

Credit | The ChinaAfrica Project

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