The ranking US general for Africa is warning that a growing threat from China may come not just from the Pacific Ocean but from the Atlantic as well.
Stephen Townsend, in an interview with The Associated Press, said Beijing plans to establish a large navy port capable of hosting submarines or aircraft carriers on Africa’s west coast.
He said Beijing has already approached countries from Mauritania to Namibia, to discuss establishing a naval facility.
“They’re looking for a place where they can rearm 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 caution that China’s growing assertiveness isn’t simply happening in Asia. They argue that Beijing is aggressively gaining economic influence over countries in Africa, South America and the Middle East, and is pursuing bases and footholds in all these places.
“The Chinese are outmanoeuvring the US in Africa,” said Townsend. “Port projects, economic endeavours, infrastructure and all their agreements and contracts will lead to greater access in the future.”
The People’s Liberation Army of China’s first overseas naval base was opened in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa in 2017. It is steadily increasing its capacity and satellite images have shown a new pier capable of servicing aircraft carriers. Townsend said as many as 2,000 military personnel are stationed at the base, including hundreds of Marines.
“They have arms and munitions for sure. They have armoured combat vehicles. We think they will soon be basing attack helicopters there, too,” he said.
For some time, analysts have thought that China has been working to establish a navy base on Africa’s eastern coast in Tanzania, a country that has had a strong, longstanding military relationship with Beijing. But Townsend said it appears there’s been no decision on that yet.
“That’s on the Indian Ocean side,” he said. “I want any base to be there instead of on the Atlantic coast.”
A base on Africa’s northern Atlantic coast would be substantially closer to the US east coast than military facilities in China are to America’s west coast.
The Defense Department’s 2020 report on China’s military power, noted that the large amounts of oil and gas imported from Africa and the Middle East make resource-rich countries like Angola a high priority target for China over the next 15 years.