U.S. General Worried About China's Efforts to Establish Military Base on Africa's West Coast

A top U.S. general for Africa warned that China is looking to establish a navy port in Africa.

U.S. General Stephen Townsend, who heads U.S. Africa Command, told the Associated Press that Beijing has approached several countries stretching along Africa's west coast about establishing a navy facility capable of hosting submarines or aircraft carriers.

"They're looking for a place where they can rearm and repair warships. That becomes militarily useful in conflict," Townsend said. "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."

This news comes after President Joe Biden claims competition with China is a top foreign policy challenge. In his address to Congress last week, Biden pledged to maintain a strong U.S. military presence in the Indo-Pacific and promised to boost economic and technological development.

U.S. military officials around the world argue that Beijing is pursuing bases and asserting economic influence over several countries in Africa, South American and the Middle East.

"The Chinese are outmaneuvering the U.S. in select countries in Africa," Townsend said. "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."

Chinese Military Africa Base
Delegates from the military leave after the closing session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People on March 11, 2021 in Beijing, China. U.S. Military officials warn China is looking to establish a naval presence on Africa's western coast. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

China's first overseas naval base was built years ago in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa and it is steadily increasing its capacity. Townsend said as many as 2,000 military personnel are at the base, including hundreds of Marines who handle security there.

"They have arms and munitions for sure. They have armored combat vehicles. We think they will soon be basing helicopters there to potentially include attack helicopters," said Townsend.

For some time, many have thought that China was working to establish a Navy base in Tanzania, a country on Africa's eastern coast, that has had a strong, longstanding military relationship with Beijing. But Townsend said it appears there's been no decision on that yet.

He said that while China has been trying hard to get a base in Tanzania, it's not the location he's most concern about.

"It's on the Indian Ocean side," he said. "I want it to be in Tanzania instead of on the Atlantic coast. The Atlantic coast concerns me greatly," he said, 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.

More specifically, other U.S. officials say the Chinese have been eyeing locations for a port in the Gulf of Guinea.

The Defense Department's 2020 report on China's military power, said China has likely considered adding military facilities to support its naval, air and ground forces in Angola, among other locations. And it noted that the large amount of oil and liquefied natural gas imported from Africa and the Middle East, make those regions a high priority for China over the next 15 years.

Henry Tugendhat, a senior policy analyst with the United States Institute of Peace, said China has a lot of economic interests on Africa's west coast, including fishing and oil. China also has helped finance and build a large commercial port in Cameroon.

He said that any effort by Beijing to get a naval port on the Atlantic coast would be an expansion of China's military presence. But the desire for ocean access, he said, may be primarily for economic gain, rather than military capabilities.

Townsend and other regional military commanders laid out their concerns about China during recent congressional hearings. He, along with Adm. Craig Faller, head of U.S. Southern Command, and Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, are battling to retain their military forces, aircraft and surveillance assets as the Pentagon continues to review the shift to great power competition.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is conducting a global posture review to determine if America's military might is positioned where it needs to be, and in the right numbers, around the world to best maintain global dominance. That review is expected to be finished in late summer.

China Military Africa
In this Feb. 8, 2017, file photo, then-Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend talks with an Iraqi officer during a tour north of Baghdad, Iraq. Townsen, now a general, says a growing military threat from China may well come from America’s east, as Beijing looks to establish a large navy port capable of hosting submarines or aircraft carriers on the Atlantic coast of Africa. Ali Abdul Hassan/AP Photo