A rare visit to Nigeria this week by the Chinese navy is once again raising questions about Beijing’s military intentions in the strategically important Gulf of Guinea.
Three Chinese warships have been docked in the port of Lagos for five days, with Nigerian and Chinese officials saying the visit is aimed at enhancing maritime security in the region, which is plagued by piracy. China already has a military base in Djibouti on the east coast of the African continent and U.S. officials have long speculated that Beijing is planning more.
Asked by VOA whether part of the reason for the trip is to explore the possibility of establishing a second military base in Africa, officials from the Chinese embassies in both Nigeria and Washington declined to comment, with the latter writing: “Unfortunately we have nothing to offer on the specific question you mentioned.”
The U.S. State Department also declined to directly answer questions relating to a possible base, telling VOA: “We do not want to limit African partnerships with other countries. We seek to offer African countries a choice by demonstrating the benefits of our governance and economic partnership models.”
However, Washington has been vocal about the issue in the past, with General Stephen J. Townsend of the U.S.-Africa Command telling a House Armed Services Committee hearing last year: “The thing I think I’m most worried about is this military base on the Atlantic coast.”
“As a first priority, we need to prevent or deter a Chinese space on the Atlantic coast of Africa,” he added.
A Chinese base in West Africa would give Beijing a military presence across the Atlantic from America’s East Coast, perceived as a threat to national security.
Townsend said at the time he believed the Chinese were favoring Equatorial Guinea as the location for a West Africa base.
In a statement, China said the stop in Nigeria was simply a “friendly visit,” intended to “jointly address maritime security threats and maintain peace and stability in the Gulf of Guinea.”
Nigeria’s navy spokesman Commodore Adedotun Ayo-Vaughan told local media: “It is not a strange thing that the Chinese are doing this port visit. Americans, Europeans, French and Spanish do it very often.”
Earlier this year, the U.S. led annual joint military exercises in Nigeria.
A more secure Nigeria is important for China, which has thousands of citizens working in the oil-rich country — Africa’s largest economy. Nigeria has also been a major beneficiary of President Xi Jinping’s pivot to Africa with his Belt and Road infrastructure initiative. Earlier this year, a Chinese-built $1.5 billion deep-sea port was opened in Lagos.
Nigeria, however, is wracked by an insurgency in the north, and Chinese have become favorite targets of kidnapping gangs looking for ransom.
Additionally, Nigeria is among China's top oil suppliers, but shipments of the commodity have also been targeted. Earlier this year, pirates boarded a Chinese-owned oil tanker in the Gulf of Guinea.
Shift from East Africa
Darren Olivier, director of the conflict research consultancy African Defense Review, told VOA the Chinese navy has so far been predominantly focused on East Africa due to their military base in Djibouti. They have participated in Gulf of Aden anti-piracy patrols for years.
China’s navy has also been active in the Indian Ocean, with Chinese warships taking part earlier this year in joint exercises off Durban with their South African and Russian counterparts.
However, they were not neglecting West Africa, said Olivier.
“China's sending a naval task force to exercise with Nigeria is likely to be part of a similar pattern to what was first observed in East Africa,” he told VOA.
“First, regular involvement in anti-piracy patrols and maritime security exercises, followed by the creation of a West African naval base to support those operations, to protect Chinese oil and other exports from the area, and to provide security assistance to both China's allies in the region and its citizens and businesses,” Olivier said.
“This doesn't necessarily mean that it's looking to build a base in Nigeria itself, but it's certainly a possibility.”