China's Next Move: A Naval Base in the South Atlantic?
I recently returned from Walvis Bay, Namibia, the country's sole deep water port and former South Atlantic home to the Royal and South African Navies. Also in port were two of the three ships of the Royal Navy's Atlantic Patrol Tasking South. A Daring-class Type 45 air warfare destroyer and a Royal Fleet Auxiliary small fleet tanker were both pier side. (The task force's third ship, HMS Clyde, was presumably on station patrolling the Falklands.) While Walvis Bay enjoys a 138-year history with the Royal Navy, it could soon be home to a powerful Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy surface squadron.
In Jan. 2015, The Namibian reported the existence of a "confidential letter from Namibia's ambassador to China, Ringo Abed, to Namibia's foreign minister stat[ing] that 'a [Chinese] delegation will visit Namibia ... for discussions ... on the way forward regarding plans for the proposed naval base in Walvis Bay'.” According to the letter, a Chinese delegation, including technical staff and naval architects, will meet with Namibian officials sometime after March 21, 2015 to discuss a field feasibility study for the base. Beijing has told Namibian diplomats that a "Chinese naval presence will deter any would-be illegal trawlers and smugglers.” China's Indian Ocean-based "string of pearls" naval base strategy to protect the country's 21st Century vision of a "maritime silk road" looks like it may now extend all the way to the South Atlantic. If such a development came to fruition, it would have major strategic implications for the West.
During my visit to Walvis Bay, China's plan to build a naval base was the talk of the town. Several Namibians pointed out that China already has a major satellite tracking installation in-country. China is developing key uranium mines. Chinese immigrants are opening shops in every corner of the land. A Namibian told me he would not be surprised if Namibia soon elects its first Chinese member of parliament. One local, who works at the harbor, said he has heard the PLA Navy will deploy four to six warships to the prospective base. Once that happens, he said, Namibia becomes, in essence, a Chinese colony. That estimate is consistent with a reported PLA Navy call on Walvis Bay last year, "PLAN's 16th escort task force consisting of the Taihu, a Type 903 replenishment ship, Yancheng, a Type 054A guided-missile frigate and Luoyang, a Type 053H3 frigate, anchored in Walvis Bay during a mission to the Gulf of Aden."
The South Atlantic: A History That Matters
This history of Walvis Bay is dictated by its strategic importance as a naval station. Britain occupied Walvis Bay in 1838 to keep the deep water harbor out of the Kaiser's hands. It allowed the territory to be annexed by the Cape Colony in the same year. Briefly overrun by the Germans in 1915, South Africa recaptured Walvis Bay during the World War I Southwest Africa campaign. The naval base at Walvis Bay remained in the Royal Navy's hands until South Africa became a Republic in 1960. Even after Namibia gained its independence in 1990, Walvis Bay stayed South African sovereign territory. Walvis Bay was only ceded by South Africa to Namibia as an act of African solidarity after Nelson Mandela was elected president in 1994.
The South Atlantic, while below the radar of most policy makers today, has played an outsized role in modern naval history. Therein lies the importance of Walvis Bay. At the outset of World War I, on December 8, 1914, the Royal Navy defeated the Imperial German Navy's then-famous Pacific Cruiser Squadron, under the command of Admiral Graf Maximilian von Spee, in the Battle of the Falkland Islands. The British victory prevented Spee from wreaking havoc on allied merchant shipping in the Atlantic as he had done in the Pacific.
The Battle of the River Plate in the South Atlantic on Dec. 13, 1939, was the first major naval engagement of World War II. Four Royal Navy cruisers engaged the German pocket battleship, Graf Spee, after it had sunk several allied merchant ships near St. Helena Island in the South Atlantic. The German warship was scuttled by its crew in the River Plate after it was cornered by the Royal Navy. Later in the war, during the Battle of the Atlantic, allied long-range naval patrol flying boats and land-based aircraft operated from Ascension and St. Helena Islands performing anti-surface commerce raider and anti-submarine warfare missions.
In 1982, UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher assembled the most powerful naval battle group since World War II and dispatched it to the South Atlantic to retake the Falklands from Argentina, which had illegally invaded and occupied the islands. After the nuclear hunter submarine HMS Conqueror sank the Argentine battle cruiser General Belgrano on May 2, 1982, Argentina ceased to be anything close to a blue water naval force of any consequence in the region.
During one of the last hot conflicts of the Cold War, the Angolan civil war, Fidel Castro was exceedingly anxious that the South African Navy, based at Walvis Bay, would attack and sink his troop and armament conveys bound for Angola's capital, Luanda. South Africa retired its last blue water frigate, President Pretorius, in July 1985 due to budgetary issues. Nevertheless, Castro was concerned by South Africa's small fleet of Daphne-class diesel-electric submarines that sometimes deployed from Walvis Bay.
A Present-Day Predicament:
Since the mid-1980s when the South Atlantic's regional powers - Argentina and South Africa - basically stopped policing the ocean's blue waters, the job has fallen primarily to Britain. The U.K. has the most significant Western interests in the region. According to the Royal Navy, Atlantic Patrol Tasking South "provide[s] ongoing protection and reassurance to British interests [and "allied nations"] in the South Atlantic, maintaining the continuous Royal Naval presence in the Atlantic." For decades, the U.K. has protected the vital South Atlantic sea lanes as well as its territories of Ascension, St. Helena and the oil rich Falklands and related islands on a very efficient basis with just one Type 45 destroyer (albeit likely the most sophisticated destroyer in the world) or a Type 23 frigate. The lone warship is usually accompanied by a replenishment ship when on extended deployment in the South Atlantic. Given the significant cuts to the Royal Navy since Prime Minister Cameron took office amid the Global Financial Crisis, one warship is probably the most the Royal Navy can deploy to the South Atlantic, given the U.K.'s other commitments. The U.S. Navy, its own fleet size declining for years and preoccupied with the Middle East and Pacific, has been pleased to see its closest naval ally provide presence in the region.
In this context, China's desire to extend its growing surface warfare fleet to a Walvis Bay base is smart geopolitical and naval strategy—amplified by the fact that Beijing has already showed at least some interest in the Atlantic going back to late 2012. Namibia is a friendly government that will be increasingly susceptible to Chinese influence as the PLA's bases there grow as does the Chinese immigrant population and China's commercial mining investments.
Across the South Atlantic, Argentina is hostile to Britain due to the Falklands territorial dispute. Buenos Aires is also antagonistic to America and various European nations as a result of a massive bond crisis. Accordingly, Chinese warships should have ample opportunities for port visits and to conduct joint exercises across the ocean from its hoped-for base at Walvis Bay. Recent press reports also claim that China is negotiating to sell jet fighters to Argentina. If the deal is completed, those fighters would pose a direct threat to Britain's air superiority over the Falklands. Such a deal would also almost certainly result in a contingent of PLA Air Force personnel taking up residence in Argentina for training and maintenance purposes.
The other regional player, South Africa, has a robust small fleet but its combat readiness and effectiveness have been questioned in recent years. Further, South Africa's post-Apartheid government has maintained strong and friendly ties with Beijing over the past two decades. Thus, South Africa can no longer be counted on as a ready Western ally in the event of a crisis involving China. And, access to its naval bases at Simonstown, Port Elizabeth and Durban cannot be taken for granted by NATO navies in such an event.
From a base at Walvis Bay, PLA Navy warships would have short distances to sail for friendly, if not allied, ports. It would have the ability to patrol the critical Cape of Good Hope around Africa and Cape Horn around South America. The approaches to the key North Atlantic sea lanes linking the Americas, Africa and Europe would be nearby. Both Germany and the Soviet Union would have coveted such a naval base in the 20th Century. China is on the threshold of obtaining such an advantage in the 21st Century.
How the West Could Respond:
Should the U.S. or U.K. fail to persuade Namibia to not allow China to build a naval base at Walvis Bay, or worse yet, not even engage on the issue, the West is not without resources should it later decide to counter China's South Atlantic gambit. The value of the airfields at the British Overseas Territories in the event of a South Atlantic crisis cannot be overestimated. The Royal Air Force's Mount Pleasant airbase in the Falklands is a massive hardened and fortified complex, nicknamed the "Death Star" by locals. The base could accommodate far more planes than the four Eurofigher Typhoons and Voyager tanker/transport now deployed there. Mount Pleasant is a strategic asset in the South Atlantic.
The RAF also manages Wideawake airfield on Ascension Island, which it describes as "an invaluable link and airhead for the South Atlantic, especially the Falkland Islands and St. Helena." The U.S. Air Force already uses Wideawake airfield on a regular basis for a variety of contingencies and is very familiar with Ascension Island.
A new airport on St. Helena, Britain's second oldest colony, has been under construction since early 2012. It is scheduled to open next year at a cost to the U.K. of £201.5 million. The airport is slated for civilian use and will be managed by a South African concern but the modern facility will be able to handle the entire range of NATO military aircraft. St. Helena's proximity to Walvis Bay is advantageous for ISR purposes.
Bermuda is the fourth important British possession in the region. The island provided key naval and air facilities in both World Wars. It has a modern airport and harbor and can be readily supplied from the continental U.S.
Mount Pleasant, Ascension, St. Helena and Bermuda would provide excellent coverage over the South Atlantic for long range naval patrol aircraft and bombers. Since its decision to scrap its Nimrod program, the U.K. no longer has a long-range naval aviation patrol capability. And, with the retirement of its Canberra and Vulcan bombers, the RAF no longer has a long-range bomber platform. Accordingly, it would fall to the U.S. to fly P-8 Poseidons from the U.K.’s island airfields in order to effectively patrol the South Atlantic. The U.S. Navy could also task surface combatants and submarines to augment the Royal Navy's patrol in the South Atlantic. In such a case, the islands would be available to surface combatants for resupply and limited maintenance requirements.
Of course, such deployments would heavily tax the shrinking U.S. fleet and naval aviation assets and likely slow America's pivot to the Pacific. Thus, at relatively little cost to itself, a Chinese pivot to the South Atlantic via another "pearl" base at Walvis Bay could make America's already slow Pacific pivot all the more difficult.
Further, a robust PLA Navy presence in the South Atlantic could cause the U.K. to seek an accommodation with China in order to protect its last important overseas territories. China, which will be dependent on fossil fuels for decades to come, would certainly be interested in stakes in the rich offshore oil and gas fields surrounding the Falklands. It is not inconceivable that Whitehall could see involving China in such projects, backed up by the PLA Navy's South Atlantic presence, as a way of deterring Argentine aggression in the Falklands. As the U.K. continues to cut its defense budget as part of an overall effort to reduce the size of government, this might be seen as a low cost way of maintaining British interests in the region. It is likely mere coincidence, but the timing of the U.K.'s announcement that it will defy Washington and join China's Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank just as a PLA Navy delegation prepares for a visit to Namibia will not be lost on Beijing.
China is putting the South Atlantic into play with an audacious and clever geopolitical move to Walvis Bay. Consequently, after years off stage, the ocean that is famous for high-profile naval engagements may be making a comeback.