China and Equatorial Guinea: Why Their New ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’ Matters

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China and Equatorial Guinea: Why Their New ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’ Matters

Is Beijing’s rumored plan for a base in the African country moving closer to fruition?

China and Equatorial Guinea: Why Their New ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’ Matters

Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, and President of Equatorial Guinea Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo shake hands following a signing ceremony, at the Great Hall of the People, in Beijing, China, May 28, 2024.

Credit: Tingshu Wang/Pool Photo via AP

If you were to do a quiz on “Africa,” Equatorial Guinea is likely to come up due to its fairly distinctive features. It’s the only country on the continent where Spanish is an official language and is one of Africa’s few upper-middle-income countries due to its large oil and gas deposits. It was also the last of six countries to adopt the Central African Franc as its currency, in 1984, 16 years after it achieved independence from Spain. It is quite a unique country.

The Chinese government recognizes this uniqueness. Last month, the country’s President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo made a state visit to China – his 11th trip to China overall, four of which have been state visits  (2006, 2012, 2018, and now 2024). President Xi Jinping held a welcoming ceremony and banquet, and the two heads of state held talks and jointly attended a signing ceremony of cooperation documents. Chinese Premier Li Qiang and Zhao Leji, chairman of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, also met with Obiang. 

The high point of this visit was the announcement of an elevation of bilateral ties to a “comprehensive strategic partnership of cooperation.” Malabo now joins a list of over a dozen African countries enjoying this level of bilateral ties with China.

What do both countries get from such an upgrade?

Trade and Investment

Equatorial Guinea, although relatively rich within the continent, has significant development challenges. Over the years Malabo has leveraged FDI into key economic sectors like energy to drive national development. Between 2000 to 2012, Equatorial Guinea received $50 billion in capital deployment from U.S.-based oil and gas companies. However, Malabo’s oil reserves have been drying up since 2012 and are expected to run out by 2035

Equatorial Guinea now seeks to diversify its economy as a matter of urgency. One way it is looking to do that is to leverage its location and existing infrastructure to become a logistical hub and gateway into central Africa. For instance, over 80 percent of the country’s roads are paved, one of the highest in Africa. Last November, the African Development Bank approved a 73 million euro project to construct a bridge linking Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea.

China has also financed and built several major infrastructure projects in Equatorial Guinea; thus Malabo sees Beijing as a crucial partner going forward. According to China’s Ministry of Commerce and the Observatory of Economic Complexity (OEC), the bilateral trade volume between the two countries reached $1.75 billion in 2022, with China’s exports amounting to $231 million and imports reaching $1.52 billion. Equatorial Guinea’s primary export product to China is crude petroleum, followed by petroleum gas and rough wood, while China’s exports to Equatorial Guinea are more diversified; special-purpose ships, gas turbines and ceramic bricks are the top products among them. 

By the end of 2022, the investment stock of Chinese enterprises in Equatorial Guinea was $240 million – fairly average for African countries – largely focused on the extractive industry. On the lending side, research by the Boston University Global Development Policy Center suggests Chinese loans to Equatorial Guinea totaled $3.1 billion from 2000 to 2022. Most loans have supported infrastructure in the energy sector, with notable projects including the Djibloho Hydropower Project ($257 million) in 2006 as well as Power Grid Bata City Phase 1 ($300 million) in 2010 and Phase 2 ($290.3 million) in 2016. The most recent large infrastructure project was the Malabo City Water Supply Project ($420 million), which China committed to in 2019. 

Obiang returned home after reportedly signing several bilateral cooperation documents covering investment, economic development, digital economy, green development, and the implementation of global development initiatives. Both countries also agreed to work to integrate the results of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (which will take place in September this year) and Belt and Road Initiative with Equatorial Guinea’s 2035 National Economic and Social Development Plan. 

The “Strategic” Factor

That said, from a Chinese perspective, the bilateral economic relationship was not really the main reason for the partnership elevation. For China, Equatorial Guinea is not a particularly crucial economic partner, although China recognizes that diversity is crucial for resilient supply chains. To Beijing, the relationship is more important from a strategic point of view. 

On December 5, 2021, The Wall Street Journal, based on secret U.S. intelligence findings, reported China’s intention to establish its first permanent military presence on the Atlantic Ocean in Equatorial Guinea. In 2022, the Biden administration dispatched high-level diplomats to Equatorial Guinea, reportedly on a campaign to sway Malabo away from China. Washington’s perspective is that a Chinese naval base in Equatorial Guinea could threaten U.S. national security by providing China with a logistical base and springboard in the Atlantic Ocean. 

The reports of a possible Chinese naval base in Equatorial Guinea concern a Chinese-built deep-water port in Bata, a city in mainland Equatorial Guinea. Although the port is commercial, it is well-positioned for refueling operations because it is next to an oil refinery. Additionally, it includes a sizable intermodal yard and warehouse space, which are beneficial for restocking activities. The port also connects to the Trans Africa 10 highway linking the city to Gabon.

U.S. suspicions have not been confirmed by either Malabo or Libreville. Nonetheless, there is a renewed push from American officials with “warnings” to Gabon and Equatorial Guinea against offering basing options to the Chinese navy. Washington’s anxiety can be explained by the similar pattern China-Gabon and China-Equatorial Guinea ties have taken over the last decade. 

Back in 2016, China and Gabon established a “comprehensive cooperative partnership” during then-President Ali Bongo’s visit to Beijing in 2016. Then in April 2023, China and Gabon announced an upgrade of bilateral ties to a “comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership.” A week after the upgrade the People’s Liberation Army noted, “The Chinese military stands ready to work with the Gabonese side to earnestly fulfil the important consensuses reached by the two heads of state, intensify high-level exchanges, and actively carry out all-round pragmatic cooperation, so as to uplift both the level and quality of mil-to-mil relations and make positive contributions to international and regional peace and stability.” So it came as no surprise when, in July 2023, Chinese navy ships docked in Libreville, Gabon, for friendly visits.  

Similarly, during President Obiang’s visit to China in April 2015, China and Equatorial Guinea established a comprehensive partnership of cooperation. If Gabon is anything to go by, the elevation of China’s bilateral ties with Equatorial Guinea to a “comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership” indicates the establishment of a framework for deeper military cooperation between Malabo and Beijing. 

Indeed, it is noteworthy that Djibouti hosts China’s only other Chinese naval base in Africa, and China-Djibouti bilateral ties are also officially designated as a “strategic partnership,” established in 2017 — the same year China opened its naval base in Djibouti.

Potentially expanding military ties with Equatorial Guinea is important from the Chinese side, as the ouster of Bongo in 2023 is likely to have altered the progression of China-Gabon dynamics. 

Given Equatorial Guinea’s uniqueness on the continent, as a country that has historic and current links to several European countries, its new elevation with China – whether driven by economics or strategy – has implications for Africa’s strategic environment more broadly. Despite the great power rivalry between China and the United States, many African countries remain pragmatic – willing to deepen ties with all partners as long as there is an economic benefit. 

And why not? If those ties deliver new economic opportunities, a sense of balanced relations and mutual respect, it may well be worth several state visits.