Beijing has been increasingly clear about its global military ambitions.
Chinese military basing efforts abroad have become a topic of great international interest and scrutiny. The completion of Beijing’s first overseas military base in Djibouti in 2017, revelations last year of nda potential military base in the United Arab Emirates, and the announcement this spring of Chinese investment in a Cambodian military base with suspected exclusive Chinese use all support the realization that China is methodically moving forward on improving its ability to project power globally. Deciphering where Beijing plans to place its next flag is challenging because it is a dynamic equation—one that must factor in China’s goals and those of a host nation, along with the willingness of those involved to deal with the invariable regional and international questions and blowback. One area of the world where this calculus appears favorable for China is Africa.
The lack of visible, publicly available evidence of Chinese basing progress in Africa has fueled skepticism, with some commentators suggesting that concern about such basing efforts is overblown. This is understandable, but it overlooks the secretive nature and substantial timelines associated with these diplomatic and military negotiations. One just has to look closely enough and understand that China has a patient, long-term approach to achieving its global military ambitions.
China laid the first brick in this foundation in 2004, when then-President Hu Jintao unveiled the “New Historic Mission” concept, calling for a more global role for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to enable it to execute “diversified military tasks.” China’s unexpected evacuation of more than 35,000 Chinese nationals from war-torn Libya in early 2011 likely served as a wake-up call for Beijing in terms of how the PLA would need to support these broader global ambitions. It then took on greater meaning following the 2013 announcement of the Belt and Road Initiative, China’s ambitious effort to establish new trade routes to connect China with the rest of the world.
As Beijing’s economic interests have taken on a more global flavor, the PLA’s importance in securing those interests has grown. China’s 2015 defense white paper for the first time identified protecting “overseas interests” as a “strategic task” for the PLA. Then in 2019, China’s defense white paper stated that the PLA was actively developing “overseas logistical facilities” to “address deficiencies in overseas operations and support” for contingencies including “overseas evacuation.” In the Chinese context, these documents carry tremendous authority and serve to communicate to domestic and foreign audiences China’s strategy and intent for the PLA as it transforms into a global force.
During this time, PLA researchers, who often provide insights into official government thinking, also published articles examining the underlying factors for overseas military bases. As one longtime China watcher noted, these publications indicate that the topic was “no longer taboo” and that the PLA Navy was at the fore of China’s global expansion. Indeed, as the U.S. Defense Department’s most recent report on China’s military noted, China has likely considered 13 countries for military basing access, including Angola, Kenya, the Seychelles, and Tanzania, as well as Cambodia and the UAE.
Beyond the strategic planning narrative, how China has reacted to (or more often refused to acknowledge) claims of its basing efforts is illustrative for what the future holds. Denials and deflection are the panacea for international criticism. Since late last year, Chinese government officials declined to comment when the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post outlined secret plans to develop bases in the UAE and Cambodia, respectively. When Beijing responded, the use of phrases such as “bullying act” and “malicious speculations” were the preferred counternarratives.
Denial makes a lot of sense. China is concerned about how the world sees it, especially as its military modernization and growth are undeniable. Beijing prefers to champion a softer vision of its global role, where peaceful development, not military expansionism, is the overarching theme. Development, global governance, green energy cooperation, investment, peace, sustainable financial compensation, and other win-win results were among the themes articulated in the China-Africa Cooperation Vision 2035, released following the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation ministerial meeting last year in Dakar, Senegal; not surprisingly, military basing was not mentioned. Similarly, in 2018, China launched the China-Africa Defense and Security Forum, which drew senior military participants from 50 African countries and organizations, only to change the branding the next year to the First China-Africa Peace and Security Forum. For Beijing, “peace” became a more desirable slogan than “defense.”
The Cambodia case underscores another key point—basing progress takes time. In 2019, the Wall Street Journal reported that China and Cambodia had reached a secret agreement to upgrade the Ream Naval Base. Three years later, in June 2022, the two countries hosted a groundbreaking ceremony, with new infrastructure improvements to the base’s port facility planned. In this regard, time is China’s best ally because it allows other events to distract world attention while Beijing works methodically to expand the PLA’s reach.
This leads us to what China is least likely to emphasize: All African countries have a right to participate in discussions about the future militarization of their regions. This is especially true because that militarization could have long-term consequences that threaten natural resource and strategic mineral extraction vital to Africa’s economic future. For instance, Chinese illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing practices impose considerable financial and human costs on West Africans themselves. According to one leading Western academic, more than 60 percent of China’s estimated total distant-water catch, worth $5 billion, takes place in West Africa. West African countries also disproportionately rely on fish for 60 to 80 percent of their animal protein intake, so these Chinese practices are threatening West Africans’ day-to-day lives. This demonstrates China’s willingness to harm local economies for its own gain. A Chinese military presence in West Africa could easily support China’s nefarious IUU practices, which presumably would be unwelcome to West African countries.
When we look at West Africa, Equatorial Guinea has garnered the most attention of late and for good reason. Much as in Cambodia, Chinese markets are central to the Equatoguinean economy. China is Cambodia’s leading importer, taking in 27 percent of Cambodia’s total exports. Similarly, China is the leading destination for Equatoguinean exports, accounting for 34 percent. Moreover, in recent years, Equatorial Guinea’s debt to China was an estimated 49.7 percent of GDP, a staggering figure that stems from billions of dollars of loans used for local infrastructure projects. Beijing and Malabo also have a 50-year diplomatic relationship, and Equatorial Guinea was the first African country to receive Chinese vaccines during the COVID-19 pandemic. Economic ties make a powerful incentive—and lever—for additional cooperation. Just ask Sri Lanka about leverage: In December 2017, Chinese firms were able to take control of Hambantota Port on a 99-year lease after the country was unable to cover growing debt linked to the port.
Equatorial Guinea could offer the Chinese a lot and, most importantly, something the PLA does not have in Djibouti—access to the Atlantic Ocean and airfields for fixed-wing aircraft. As the then-head of U.S. Africa Command, Gen. Stephen Townsend, noted in testimony to Congress this spring, a base in the Atlantic would put the Chinese military “several thousand miles closer to the U.S. homeland.” The country also has three airfields capable of supporting heavy-lift cargo aircraft, one of which is located near the Port of Bata. If the ability to protect Chinese citizens and interests abroad is integral to Beijing’s strategy—as it has communicated—finding ways to use air infrastructure is essential to future evacuations.
Moreover, deep-water ports exist in Bata and Malabo that Beijing could easily upgrade for military purposes, especially because it is quite familiar with these facilities. In 2006, the Export-Import Bank of China funded the initial construction of the Port of Bata, which the state-owned China Communications Construction Co.’s First Harbor Engineering Co. built in 2014. The China Road and Bridge Corp., another state-owned enterprise, made significant upgrades to the port.
So considering the implications of Chinese basing for African countries, what is next? Analysts should watch for indicators of basing progress, including upticks in bilateral military engagements and military deployments to the region, forward staging of construction material, increased volume of transport from military or commercial flights or ships, improved or new security perimeters at base locations, trial balloons in Chinese media, less official outlets like the Global Times socializing the idea in regional media, and government statements. The actual construction of new or improved naval, air, ground, or logistics facilities would of course be the most compelling sign.
In the interim, the United States must be patient and vigilant. To think that China, when pressed about its true intentions, would be transparent is naive. To think that China, which talks about where it wants to be militarily in 2050, would be content with bases in Cambodia and Djibouti is shortsighted. Perhaps most importantly, those most affected by China’s actions, namely West African countries themselves, should have a say in whether this is what they want for their future security. Silence and apathy will ensure a Chinese base in West Africa becomes a matter of when, not if.
Eric A. Miller is U.S. Africa Command’s director of intelligence analysis. His writing does not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, U.S. Defense Department, or U.S. government.