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Chinese naval fleet in Nigeria raise concerns

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By Usman Oladimeji

Having a Chinese base in West Africa seen as threat to national security.

The recent, quite unusual visit of the Chinese navy to Nigeria has renewed concerns about Beijing’s possible base interests in the strategically vital Gulf of Guinea. Few days ago, three Chinese warships arrived at the port of Lagos and according to Nigerian and Chinese officials, it is purposefully aimed at bolstering maritime security in the region, which is rife with piracy. U.S. authorities have long projected that China is planning to expand its military presence more, beyond the already established one in Djibouti, a country on the east coast of Africa.

In response to inquiries about the potential for a second Chinese base in Africa, the United States State Department stated, “We do not want to limit African partnerships with other countries.” By showcasing the benefits of our governance and economic cooperation models, we seek to provide African countries a choice. However, General Stephen J. Townsend, former Commander United States Africa Command made statements before the House Armed Services Committee last year, saying, “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 space on the Atlantic coast of Africa,” he added.

China declared the stop in Nigeria as a merely “friendly visit”.

Having a Chinese military base in West Africa would give Beijing a foothold across the Atlantic from the East Coast of the United States, which is seen as a national security threat. At the time, Townsend stated that he assumed China was considering Equatorial Guinea for a base in the West African region. However, China declared in a statement that the stop in Nigeria was merely a “friendly visit,” with the goal of collaboratively addressing maritime security challenges and maintaining peace and stability in the Gulf of Guinea.

Commodore Adedotun Ayo-Vaughan, a spokesman for the Nigerian navy, disclosed to the news media that the officials visiting the port is nothing out of the ordinary noting that it is highly common amongst Europeans, Americans, French, and Spanish. China has thousands of citizens working in Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy and oil-rich country, so ensuring their safety there is a top priority for Beijing. President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road development programme has benefited Nigeria greatly as part of his reinvigorated focus on the African continent. Lagos, Nigeria, unveiled a new deep-sea port built by China earlier this year at a cost of $1.5 billion.

Focus of the projected navy base has been on East Africa.

However, the northern part of Nigeria is experiencing an insurgency, and citizens from abroad have been popular targets of kidnappers attempting to collect ransom. Nigeria is a major source of oil for China, but its exports have also been the focus of attacks. This year already, pirates in the Gulf of Guinea have attacked at least one oil tanker. According to Darren Olivier of the war research firm African Defence Review, the Chinese navy has been preoccupied with East Africa since the establishment of their base in Djibouti.

For a long time, Chinese warships have been on anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden. Earlier this year, warships participated in joint exercises off Durban with their South African and Russian counterparts, adding to the growing presence of the Chinese navy in the Indian Ocean. But, as Olivier emphasized, they were not ignoring West Africa. Similarly to what was originally seen in East Africa, China is deploying a naval task force to engage in exercises with Nigeria, he added.

Establishing another base in Nigeria is a possibility.

Olivier cites several major advances as an indication of the gravity of the situation: first, China’s participation in anti-piracy patrols and maritime security exercises; second, the establishment of a West African naval base to support those operations; third, the protection of Chinese oil and other exports from the area; and fourth, the provision of security assistance to both China’s allies in the region and its citizens and businesses. He concluded this does not relatively assure China’s interest in establishing a base in Nigeria, but it’s a possibility.

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