In November 2021, Wall Street Journal reported that the United States (US) had dissuaded United Arab Emirates (UAE) from hosting a Chinese military base.[i] UAE is one of the closest US allies in West Asia and therefore, the prospect of a Chinese base in the strategically important waters of the Persian Gulf alarmed the US officials. In fact, the Biden administration warned the “Emirati government that a Chinese military presence in its country could threaten ties between the two nations”.[ii] The report noted that the military facility was being built at the Khalifa Port located near the UAE’s capital Abu Dhabi and that the Emirati government was unaware of the nature of the activity undertaken by China.[iii]
The WSJ noted that the intelligence reports about the possibility of a Chinese military facility at the Khalifa Port began trickling-in in 2020.[iv] In the spring of 2021, the satellite imagery confirmed the US’ suspicions that the Chinese activity at the port is possibly directed to establish a military base. The US “detected the excavation of a huge hole to accommodate a multistory building and the erection of girders”.[v] Interestingly, “the construction site was covered over to prevent scrutiny”.[vi] The report notes that the people familiar with the matter declined to provide further details. For now, under the US’ pressure, the construction at the Khalifa Port has been halted.
In December 2021, the news about the possible Chinese military base in Equatorial Guinea broke.[vii] Equatorial Guinea is a tiny, oil-rich nation located in West Africa along the Gulf of Guinea. The site under scrutiny is believed to be the deep-water port of Bata, which was modernized through Chinese funding during 2008-2014. China provided a loan for the overhauling of the port.[viii] Additionally, China has also expanded the highway network in Equatorial Guinea by building a road between Bata and Niefang which has improved the connectivity between the port and the hinterland.[ix] Upon receiving the reports about the base, the US has made active efforts to dissuade Equatorial Guinea from hosting a Chinese military facility. Biden administration sent Jon Finer, the US Deputy National Security Advisor (DyNSA) to Equatorial Guinea to convey its concerns.[x] Although Equatorial Guinea is 10,000 km away from Washington, the Chinese base in Equatorial Guinea is being directly seen as threatening the US national security interests.[xi]
Strengthening economic relationships underpin the Chinese efforts to establish forward operating bases. In the last few years, China’s ties with the UAE and Equatorial Guinea have been on the upswing. China is one of the biggest consumers of the UAE’s oil exports and is among the largest trade partners for the Gulf monarchy. On its part, the UAE has allowed China’s Huawei technologies to operate in its telecom sector.[xii] With Equatorial Guinea, China is the largest importer of its oil exports.[xiii] As is the case with many other African nations, China is a key player in building and upgrading infrastructure in Equatorial Guinea.
China’s attempts to establish military bases in UAE and Equatorial Guinea point towards China’s growing ambitions to expand its military foothold across the world. Just like the great powers of the past, China, as a rising power with expansive economic interests, is willing to establish forward operating military bases in areas far away from its mainland. China’s stated motivations for acquiring the bases range from contributing to anti-piracy operations, supporting peacekeeping missions, securing overseas investments, and protecting sea lanes of communications that carry China’s trade.[xiv]
China’s capabilities to develop and operate ports are useful in expanding its political and military reach. Across the world, China has been involved in 100 civilian ports as an investor or operator of which about 50% are in Africa.[xv] In fact, in Sub-Saharan Africa alone, it has been engaged in building and/or running nearly 50 ports.[xvi] Pentagon’s China military power report 2021 identified 13 locations across the world that might have interested Chinese officials in acquiring the bases. As per this report, “the PRC has likely considered a number of countries, including Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, United Arab Emirates, Kenya, Seychelles, Tanzania, Angola, and Tajikistan, as locations for PLA facilities”.[xvii]
The network of military bases from West Africa to the Southern Pacific would enhance China’s ability to project its power significantly. It already holds a base in Djibouti in East Africa and the base at Bata in Equatorial Guinea may seem like the most logical proposition.[xviii] Just like the Somali waters off the coast of Djibouti, the Gulf of Guinea is dealing with instances of piracy and China could argue that the base would contribute to the fight against pirates.[xix] Moreover, China’s dependence on West Asian oil for its energy security, growing global interests and strengthening strategic ties with countries like Iran is necessitating it to acquire bases in the region. The gradually waning interest of the US in shaping West Asian geopolitics is opening space for China to step in.
In response to China’s growing global military presence, the US has been dissuading the countries from hosting the bases. For decades, the US has enjoyed complete mastery over the waters of the Atlantic. In the event of the Chinese base in Equatorial Guinea, it would be able to “pin down” some American forces to the southern Atlantic that might otherwise be sent to East Asia.[xx] To that extent, the base would be useful for China. However, the base does not increase the security of the host nation and therefore, it remains unclear as to why would Equatorial Guinea risk the US’ wrath by agreeing to the Chinese military installations.
China’s growing global military presence including the desire to establish bases and the US’ attempts to limit China’s influence point towards the sharpening of the great power rivalry. Although the most visible expressions of such a rivalry are seen in East Asia, South China Sea and the wider Western Pacific region, West Asia and Africa are equally, if not more, critical in the evolving strategic rivalry. The two recent developments about the possibility of Chinese bases in UAE and Equatorial Guinea serve to highlight this reality.
*Dr. Sankalp Gurjar is a Research Fellow at the Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: The views are of the author.
[i]Gordon Lubold and Warren P. Strobel, “Secret Chinese Port Project in Persian Gulf Rattles U.S. Relations With U.A.E.”, Wall Street Journal, November 19, 2021.
[vii] Michaël Tanchum, “China’s new military base in Africa: What it means for Europe and America”, European Council on Foreign Relations, December 14, 2021. Available at: https://ecfr.eu/article/chinas-new-military-base-in-africa-what-it-means-for-europe-and-america/ (Accessed on December 23, 2021).
[viii]Geopolitical Monitor, “China Seeks Atlantic Ocean Military Base”, December 15, 2021. Available at: https://www.geopoliticalmonitor.com/china-seeks-atlantic-ocean-military-base/ (Accessed on December 23, 2021).
[x] The Economist, “America worries about China’s military ambitions in Africa”, December 11, 2021.
[xii] Gordon Lubold and Warren P. Strobel, “Secret Chinese Port Project in Persian Gulf Rattles U.S. Relations with U.A.E.”, Wall Street Journal, November 19, 2021.
[xiii] US Energy Information Administration, “Equatorial Guinea”, December, 2017. Available at: https://www.eia.gov/international/analysis/country/GNQ (Accessed on December 23, 2021).
[xiv]The Economist, “America worries about China’s military ambitions in Africa”, December 11, 2021.
[xvii] Office of the Secretary of the Defense, “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China”, 2021, pp. X.
[xviii] The Economist, “America worries about China’s military ambitions in Africa”, December 11, 2021.