In late April, US AFRICOM commander General Stephen Townsend warned congress and the public about the dangers of ignoring Africa. As American troops withdraw and US Army Africa merges with Army Europe, China and Russia have been expanding their presence on the continent.
Speaking before congress, the general remarked that:
“Historically, America has not been penalized for underestimating the importance of Africa. Today, we can no longer afford to underestimate the economic opportunity and strategic consequence Africa embodies, and which competitors like China and Russia recognize.”
Now, in an interview with the Associated Press, Townsend shed light on a Chinese initiative to acquire bases on Africa’s west coast. The general claimed the PRC has approached a number of countries in hopes of establishing a facility capable of housing submarines and even aircraft carriers in the Atlantic.
In Townsend’s words:
“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.”
China’s navy currently remains focused on operations in the western Pacific. Despite the country’s efforts to expand its presence in the Indian Ocean and on Africa’s coast in order to better project its influence, protect economic interests and secure lines of communications, its ability to operate in the Indian Ocean in times of conflict remains uncertain. China loses the advantages it normally holds against America, India and other potential adversaries by fighting so far away from home, bases or not.* According to Australian professor David Brewster, depending on how future Chinese funding and priorities are allocated, the Indian Ocean could see China remain primarily focused on military operations other than war in the region, adopt a sea-control strategy or something in between these two “extremes”.
Nevertheless, even a limited regular Chinese presence in the Atlantic poses a serious challenge to the United States. A few nuclear or conventional submarines would force the country to divert additional resources to yet another theater in both peace and conflict. Russia’s expanding presence in the Arctic and Atlantic has already forced the US to place more priority on operations in the Atlantic; the reestablishment of the Atlantic Fleet was announced late last year.
*While China may seem close to the Indian Ocean on a map, China lacks coastal access to the Indian Ocean. The country is further separated from the Indian Ocean by the Himalayas and the jungle terrain of Southeast Asia. As such, power projection into the Indian Ocean requires the Chinese navy to travel a considerable distance and navigate through/around Southeast Asia. Thus a base in East Africa would be a valuable asset.