China is aggressively seeking to establish an Atlantic naval base in Africa to service submarines and aircraft carriers, Gen. Stephen Townsend, chief of the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), warned Thursday.
“They’re looking for a place where they can rearm and repair warships. That becomes militarily useful in conflict. 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 told the Associated Press (AP).
“The Chinese are outmaneuvering the U.S. in select countries in Africa. 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,” he said.
Townsend pointed to China’s base in Djibouti, which began construction in 2016 and was formally opened in August 2017, on a date that coincided with the 90th birthday of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
The base, located on the Indian Ocean, was the PLA’s first overseas naval base. The Chinese have worked steadily on expanding the base, including fortifications and extended piers to accommodate larger ships such as aircraft carriers and nuclear subs. The PLA continued fast-tracking expansion work on its Djibouti port even during the coronavirus pandemic.
Townsend said the Djibouti base has “arms and munitions for sure,” including “armored combat vehicles,” and will soon be equipped with military helicopters. He noted that China is pushing to open another base in Tanzania, but he is most concerned about the PLA acquiring more positions on the Atlantic coast of Africa, noting that such bases would be much closer to U.S. territory than any facility in China.
The Chinese have a $30 million military training center in Tanzania, ostensibly focused on training the Tanzania People’s Defense Forces (TPDF), and it has supplied a considerable amount of hardware to the TPDF – all the way up to combat aircraft – but Beijing is eager to take its close relationship with the Tanzanian military to the next level.
Under the auspices of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China wants to build the largest deep-water port in Africa at Bagamoyo, a small town north of Tanzania’s largest city and largest, but overwhelmed, port at Dar es Salaam. After six years of preparation and planning, Tanzania suspended the project in June 2019, apparently out of growing suspicions that huge BRI projects tend to be much more beneficial to China than to its developing-world partners.
China tried to jump-start the Bagamoyo port project in January 2021, claiming the Tanzanians are growing warmer to the idea. Tanzanian officials said in April that renegotiations are underway and the multi-billion-dollar project might go forward if China agrees to some key demands.
“U.S. military commanders around the globe, including several who may lose troops and resources to bolster growth in the Pacific, caution that China’s growing assertiveness isn’t simply happening in Asia. And they argue that Beijing is aggressively asserting economic influence over countries in Africa, South America and the Middle East, and is pursuing bases and footholds there,” the AP ominously noted.