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US Cold War with China — first stop, Equatorial Guinea

Right out of the playbook: hype the threat of a potential Chinese naval base facing the Atlantic, get more funding for military operations.

In the first Cold War, the Truman Doctrine laid out the premises for prioritizing an anti-communist crusade that lasted an entire generation and served as the pretext for U.S. support for apartheid South Africa and countless other anti-democratic regimes around the world. Last week’s Democracy Summit, noted CUNY Presidential Professor Branko Milanović, is most likely “a prelude to the creation of an unwieldy association of states that will be used by the United States to spearhead its ideological crusade in the escalating geopolitical conflict with China and Russia.” 

Milanović, who earned his Ph.D. in 1987 at the University of Belgrade and later became chief economist in the World Bank’s research department, recalled that in the first Cold War, there was at least the option of a non-aligned movement, in which his native country joined with India to offer an alternative to the Manichean geopolitical choice between the Soviet Union and the United States. “The clash between China and the United States is a clash driven by geopolitical considerations … It has nothing to do with democracy,” Milanović concluded.

That logic was reflected on the eve of the Summit when unnamed “intelligence officials” and “senior administration officials” took the initiative to talk to the Wall Street Journal about the threat of a possible Chinese base in Equatorial Guinea. According to these officials, “[intelligence] reports raise the prospect that Chinese warships would be able to rearm and refit opposite the East Coast of the U.S. — a threat that is setting off alarm bells at the White House and Pentagon.”

The article further explained that the United States does not oppose current close relations between Equatorial Guinea and China, which trains and arms the Guinean police and helped upgrade the commercial port at Bata on the mainland part of the country. Rather, the U.S. concern “is that the Chinese would develop a naval base in Equatorial Guinea, which would then give them naval presence on the Atlantic,” charged Maj. Gen. Andrew Rohling, commander of the U.S. Army Southern European Task Force-Africa, in a June interview. 

Foreign military bases are located across Africa, especially in Djibouti where the United States and China each have a military base, as do six other countries including Japan, Saudi Arabia, and three European countries. Adding a Chinese base in West Africa as well would not be inconsistent with China’s broad foreign policy goals of demonstrating a global presence. Private Chinese security firms have received contracts to work in some commercial ports. But there are no signs of new construction at the Bata port. And Chinese global naval strategy is still overwhelmingly focused on the area off the east coast of China. 

Chinese military presence in Africa focuses on support for UN peacekeeping and military assistance to African countries, in line with policy established in 2006. An open question is how Xi Jinping and China’s military will “fight terrorism” in Africa, one of the goals laid out at the annual China-Africa ministerial forum in Dakar in late November. China’s military assistance to Africa, which includes training of both military personnel and police forces and the export of arms, is an important part of its overall Africa policy which tends to emphasize trade, investment and infrastructural development over security issues. 

Hyping the threat of  a potential Chinese naval base facing the Atlantic is designed, in part, to obtain increased funding from the U.S. Congress for American military operations in Africa. General Stephen Townsend, Commander of the United States Africa Command, in his presentation to the Senate Armed Services Committee in April this year, cited the potential threat of a Chinese naval port in the Atlantic as “my number one global power competition concern.” 

However, it  also intended to make it clear that Washington will oppose Beijing pursuing military bases overseas as the United States has done.  “Having Chinese military vessels in the Atlantic represents a new phase of strategic competition,” Ioannis Koskinas, a senior fellow at the New America think tank, told the Turkish magazine TRT World.  “It may be that China simply says, ‘if the U.S. gets to send its carrier battle groups to the Western Pacific, China can send its ships to the Atlantic,’” he added. The threat is really to the assumption that only the United States has the right to a worldwide military presence featuring overwhelming preeminence and a giant military budget to support it. 

The “Atlantic base” scare is part of a broader Pentagon and bipartisan effort to exaggerate the military threat from China, also illustrated by the claim that China now has the world’s largest navy, as measured by the number of ships instead of the more meaningful metric of tonnage. By tonnage, the United States still has by far the world’s largest navy, comparable to the combined tonnage of the next thirteen navies and almost five times that of China.

Given that Equatorial Guinea is over 6,000 miles southeast of Miami, and that China has only 2 aircraft carriers in its entire navy compared to 20 for the United States, it is ludicrous to see the potential of a base there as a serious threat to U.S. security. China, for its part, is ringed by at least seven U.S. bases within 3,000 miles of its coast.  

Yet, since 2019, according to the WSJ article and other sources, the U.S. policy towards Equatorial Guinea has been driven by this new Cold War agenda. This to the detriment of  long-standing policy which has to some extent challenged the anti-democratic regime of  Teodoro Obiang Nguema, who has ruled the country since 1979. 

In September this year the Justice Department announced that $26.6 million confiscated from President Obiang’s son’s assets in the United States, including a Malibu mansion, would be used to support UN efforts against Covid in Equatorial Guinea. What if the U.S. had cited this to support Treasury Secretary Janet Yellin’s new anti-corruption program announced at the Summit? The Justice Department could also have announced that it was filing for forfeiture of the mansion owned by President Obiang and his wife in Potomac, Maryland, as it did in 2020 for the mansion next-door, previously owned by ousted Gambian dictator Yahya Jammeh.

If the Biden administration were ready to “build back better” in its Africa policy, it could well experiment with a pilot project in Equatorial Guinea, based not primarily on the interests of the U.S. military and U.S. oil companies, but also on objectives such as democracy, curbing corruption, sustained development in the Central African region, and the transition away from fossil fuel. Both China and the United States would be well-placed to contribute to such a common agenda. 

To begin with, it could propose, to the United Nations, the African Union, and other governmental and civil society stakeholders in the future of Equatorial Guinea, a consultative gathering at a neutral location, perhaps hosted by the UNDP. The United States would have standing to do this given the interest not only of the Defense Department but also the Department of Justice, the Treasury Department, and other agencies. 

Tutu Alicante, executive director of Equatorial Guinea Justice, who was one of the recipients of the Global Magnitsky Awards in November, is also based in the United States and would be in a good position to advise on participation by global civil society in such an event. And civil society activists might raise questions about the potential threat from surveillance technologies supplied to African governments by China or Israel, its leading competitor in this field.

Such a gathering, instead of providing an opportunity for governments to make dubious claims and promises about their commitment to democracy, might instead contribute to building collaboration in support of common agreed agendas as well as space for honest debate about conflicts in values and goals.

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