After East Africa, is China eyeing West Africa for a military base?

China’s rapid rise to power has raised concerns worldwide, particularly in the context of its military expansion. Despite accounting for only a small portion of the country’s GDP, China’s military spending is second only to the US’s budget. The construction of China’s first overseas military post in East Africa has sparked debates about its military ambitions and potential locations for future military deployment.

However, constructing a military post in West Africa would be difficult and time-consuming, requiring substantial discussions with the host government. The process could take years or even a decade, and it is likely to elicit reactions from other global powers, such as the United States. The exact course of China’s foreign policy and military development is subject to various variables, and it is speculative. 

The rapid ascent of China to the position of preeminent power on the international stage has been the subject of conversation and widespread concerns in virtually every sector of the globe. A great number of news outlets, academic papers, and others discuss various aspects of China’s rise. The Asian nation’s rapid economic development is typically brought up as the primary topic of discussion in situations like these.

The 1960s China and the 21st-century superpower

In the 1960s, China, which had previously referred to itself as a country of the third world, had a standard of living that was significantly lower than that of several African nations. According to the information provided by the World Bank, the per capita income of China in the year 1960 was relatively lower when compared to the per capita income of countries in Africa like Ghana, Cote D’Ivoire, Senegal, Nigeria, Liberia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. It should not come as a surprise, given that the majority of people around the world are discussing China’s ascent to the position of the world’s second-largest economy.

The expansion of China’s military is a significant part of the country’s climb to power, attracting much attention in recent years. Although it only accounts for a single-digit share of the country’s annual GDP, its military spending is second only to the United States budget for the military. The expansion of China’s military has been a source of concern for Western nations, particularly since the construction by China of its first overseas military base on the coast of East Africa. 

After creating its first overseas military post in Djibouti in 2017, China came under fire for allegedly violating the “non-interference policy” that has long been the cornerstone of its foreign affairs approach.  This action has triggered arguments over the primary motivation for China’s military ambitions and the locations where it may seek to build other military footholds. 

Army General Stephen J. Townsend, who served previously as the commander of the United States Africa Command, stated that the Chinese government is considering establishing a military naval port on the Atlantic coast of the African continent. According to him, Equatorial Guinea is the only country in West Africa where the Chinese have established a foothold and made significant headway compared to other nations in the region. 

BRI and China’s need to protect its investments

It’s possible that China would view establishing a military post in West Africa as a method to safeguard the billions of dollars it’s invested in infrastructure projects as part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).  The ambitious global development strategy intends to establish trade and infrastructural networks connecting Asia with Africa, Europe, and beyond. These projects have allowed China and the other participating nations to work more closely together on security matters, even though many observers view China’s BRI as a global investment and economic growth program.

West Africa may be a desirable area for China’s military deployment due to its strategic location and wealth of natural resources like crude oil, gold bauxite, diamond, and cocoa, to mention a few. The area has one of the fastest-expanding populations and economies in Africa. Early this year, Nigeria, Africa’s giant with the largest population and economy in Africa and also one of China’s top oil suppliers in January, inaugurated a $1 billion deep seaport in Lagos built by China.  This was followed by a five days visit paid by a naval fleet of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) led by the warship Nanning in July. This also has raised speculations of Nigeria offering China a base on the West African Coast.

China is making steady strides toward improving its ability to project its might globally. China has been increasing its military footprint in West Africa, and it is difficult to predict exactly where China will put its next flag on the West African Coast. Talking about this, China visited Nigeria, Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire and spent some time between June and July in those countries. China also donated patrol boats to Sierra Leone to tackle illegal fishing and piracy in the Gulf of Guinea. In the same month, the Chinese government-sponsored nine military projects in Ghana, which were stated as part of military aid to Ghana.  It was disclosed that the Senegalese Army had just acquired new Chinese-made armoured vehicles when four were spotted during the annual military parade celebrating the nation’s independence day on April 4th.

The above show the Chinese military’s engagements with countries on the West Africa Coast in the first half of this year. This shows the increasing military influence China is having in the region.  In Liberia, China already has military footprints due to the UN peacekeeping operation it had in the country for 14 years.

How easy will establishing a Chinese military base in West Africa be?

Regardless of the long list of Chinese military dealing along the West African coast, it would not be smooth for the Asian powerhouse to establish its military presence there. Striking the necessary balance between the perceived benefits, including enhanced security and economic assistance, and the potential costs, including infringements on their sovereignty or pushback from other global powers. Of significant threat to a possible military base in West Africa would be the United States, though, as it has a significant cordial relationship with most West African countries, including Ghana and Nigeria which could be China’s possible destination.

In addition, the chance that China would choose to create a military facility in West Africa is extremely likely to elicit a reaction from other global powers, particularly the United States and France, who already maintain a substantial military presence in the region. This will probably lead to increased tensions and competition in geopolitical spheres. In 2022, when the U.S. Defense Department official  Army Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, Chief of U.S. Africa Command, claimed that there is an ongoing effort by the Chinese to actively pursue the establishment of a military naval station in Equatorial Guinea, the U.S government responded by dispatching an interagency delegation to the country to urge it not to accept any aid from China. 

Also in February this year, the United States National War College’s associate professor of national security strategy, Dawn Murphy, stated in a policy brief that though the Chinese and Russian growing interest in sub-Saharan Africa is a concern for the interest of the United States, “preventing Chinese and Russian basing in sub-Saharan Africa should be a lower priority”. Murphy suggested in the Brookings Institute’s published brief nonetheless advised the United States to focus on stopping China from constructing military bases on the West African coast to prevent Beijing’s access to the Atlantic Ocean.

Speculative in the meantime, possible in the future

Although no concrete evidence suggests that China aims to construct a military base in West Africa, such a move is not out of the range of possibilities given China’s expanding global aspirations and interests. Rather, such a move is not outside of the realm of potential. In point of fact, a move of this nature is not at all outside the bounds of the realm of possibilities. Any development along these lines would almost definitely involve a complicated procedure that would require a significant period of time and would have significant implications for international politics.

Nevertheless, it is essential to emphasize that the claims made in this article are purely speculative and based on hypothetical situations. The exact course that China’s foreign policy and military development will take is subject to a wide range of variables, and it is possible that it will not correspond with the assumptions outlined in this article.

One thought on “After East Africa, is China eyeing West Africa for a military base?

  1. Speculative indeed; its realization obviously will yield positive, as well as negative consequences.

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