China is moving behind-the-scenes toward establishing a major naval port on the west coast of Africa that would host Chinese submarines and aircraft carriers capable of projecting Beijing‘s military power directly into the Atlantic, a top U.S. military official warned on Thursday.
The top commander for U.S. military operations in Africa said Chinese officials have been approaching countries stretching from Mauritania to south of Namibia in search of where to position the naval facility.
“They’re looking for a place where they can rearm and repair warships. That becomes militarily useful in conflict,” U.S. Gen. Stephen Townsend said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Gen. Townsend, who heads the Pentagon’s Africa Command, added that China‘s military is already close to establishing such a facility in Djibouti, which is situated more than 2,000 miles away in the Horn of Africa on the Indian Ocean side of the continent.
“Now they’re casting their gaze to the Atlantic coast and wanting to get such a base there,” the general said in the interview.
The comments caused a stir among China watchers in Washington, some of whom said the American public should awaken to a reality the Pentagon has been quietly warning about for the past several years: Authoritarian communist government-run China is emerging as a global military power.
“It’s just a matter of time before you have regular surface and subsurface Chinese naval vessels in the Atlantic,” Bradley Bowman, who heads the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told The Washington Times on Thursday.
“Americans need to know that’s coming and the question is what do we do between now and then to get ready,” Mr. Bowman said, adding that Gen. Townsend‘s warning should give U.S. policymakers pause as they debate defense spending priorities in the Biden era.
Thursday’s warning came roughly two weeks after the general sought to draw the attention of U.S. lawmakers to Beijing‘s expanding activities in Africa.
China‘s “activities in Africa are outpacing those of the United States and our allies as they seek resources and markets to feed economic growth in China and leverage economic tools to increase their global reach and influence,” Gen. Townsend testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee April 22.
In prepared remarks, he noted that Beijing has pledged to deliver some $60 billion in infrastructure and development loans to an array of African countries in recent years.
He also said the goal of Chinese military operations in Djibouti are to create a “platform to project power across the continent and its waters.”
Beijing built its first overseas naval base years ago in Djibouti and has been steadily increasing the base’s capacity. Gen. Townsend told The Associated Press that 2,000 military personnel positioned at the base. “They have arms and munitions for sure. They have armored combat vehicles,” he said. “We think they will soon be basing helicopters there to potentially include attack helicopters.”
The Djibouti operation is located only about 6 miles from the American Camp Lemonnier in the Horn of Africa, a U.S. Navy-led installation, which is home to roughly 3,400 U.S. Defense Department personnel.
“Beijing seeks to open additional bases, tying their commercial seaport investments in East, West and Southern Africa closely with involvement by Chinese military forces in order to further their geo-strategic interests,” Gen. Townsend told lawmakers.
His testimony and Thursday’s interview come against a backdrop in which U.S. military officials are increasingly shifting the Pentagon’s strategic focus from the counterterrorism wars of the last two decades to 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. Among President Biden’s initial foreign policy moves has been a scramble to solidify U.S.-Japan-Australia-India “Quad” cooperation aimed at countering China — building on former President Trump’s push for the four major democracies to align against the communist government in Beijing.
U.S. military commanders around the globe caution that Beijing is aggressively asserting economic influence over countries in Africa, South America and the Middle East, and is pursuing bases and footholds there. Beijing has already spent years building up bases in the disputed waters of the South China Sea and has been sending submarines and warships to far-flung China-financed ports in Sri Lanka and Pakistan.
In addition to those activities, officials have sought to underscore Beijing‘s focus on Africa. “The Chinese are outmaneuvering the U.S. in select countries in Africa,” Gen. Townsend told The Associated Press. “Port projects, economic endeavors, 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.”
Beijing was believed to be working toward establishing a Navy base in Tanzania on Africa’s eastern coast. But Gen. Townsend said it appears there’s been no decision on that yet, emphasizing that he’s more concerned with Africa’s Atlantic coastline.
“The Atlantic coast concerns me greatly,” he told The Associated Press, pointing to the relatively shorter distance from Africa’s west coast to the U.S. In nautical miles, a base on Africa’s northern Atlantic coast could be substantially closer to the U.S. than military facilities in China are to America’s western coast.
Other U.S. officials have said Beijing is also eyeing locations for a port in the Gulf of Guinea in northwest Africa.
A 2020 Pentagon report said Beijing has likely considered adding military facilities to support its naval, air and ground forces in Angola, along the continent’s southwest. The report maintained the large amount of oil and liquefied natural gas imported to China from Africa and the Middle East has prioritized Beijing‘s focus on those regions.
An analysis published last week by the United States Institute of Peace said Africa has “not escaped [the] growing great power rivalry” between Washington and Beijing. “Countering China was the lodestar of the Trump administration’s Africa policy,” the analysis said. “While the Biden administration may be looking for general areas of cooperation with Beijing, its Africa policy will certainly reflect its overarching aim of challenging China.”
But the analysis also suggested Beijing‘s interests are more economic and diplomatic than security oriented. “China invests heavily in Africa because it sees a continent of abundant natural resources, including strategic minerals, and a growing, youthful population that offers significant commercial opportunities,” it said. ” In 2020, African countries accounted for seven of the world’s 10 fastest-growing economies. There are 54 African countries represented at the United Nations, which often vote as a block, making Africa an important force in multilateral diplomacy. China’s foreign policy seeks to legitimize the Chinese Communist Party at home by winning accolades and showing its clout worldwide, including in Africa.”
Mr. Bowman, meanwhile, told The Times on Thursday that U.S. policymakers would be wise view Beijing‘s economic investments anywhere in the world as precursors to Chinese military developments to follow over the years to come.
“When we see China‘s economic projects in the Middle East or Africa or even in Europe for that matter, we have to assume that there is either now or will be a military component to that activity in the future,” he said, claiming Beijing is engaging in “debt-trap diplomacy.”
Others have argued the goal is to lure poorer nations into accepting infrastructure loans they cannot possibly pay back and then to forgive the loans in exchange for those country’s natural resources or for Chinese military access to strategically located ports and bases.
Chinese officials sharply reject such characterizations. But Mr. Bowman claimed that what Beijing is engaged in Africa and other corners of the world has begun to “look a lot like neocolonial and neoimperialist resource extraction.”
While U.S. critics often claim America engages in similar activities through direct foreign aid, World Bank and International Monetary Fund lending, Mr. Bowman said there is a stark difference.
“Beijing is not interested in creating independent and prosperous trading partners and co-equals. They are interested in creating dependents from whom they can extract resources and coerce national security advantages,” he said. “This is different from the U.S. approach to the world. I’m not saying America has a perfect history, but generally speaking, the United States wants stable and independent trading partners who control their own territory and don’t let it be used by terrorists to attack us.”