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China Seeks to Strengthen Nigeria Ties With Navy Visit

FILE - Escort squadrons of the Chinese Navy Task Group 162 boards a warship at Apapa harbour in Lagos, on July 4, 2023.

ABUJA — In a rare visit to West Africa, the Chinese navy is making a port call in Nigeria this week, as Beijing seeks to expand its influence.

Three warships of China's People's Liberation Army fleet arrived at Nigeria's economic hub, Lagos, on Sunday, bringing about 700 sailors.

The Nigerian Navy and Chinese Embassy on Monday said the five-day visit signified growing relations between Beijing and Africa, with the goal of tackling maritime security threats and maintaining stability in the Gulf of Guinea.

"It is important that Nigeria holds on to such relationship because we can't really get stuck on Western relationships alone, we have to broaden our reach. China has been a very important key partner to Nigeria. We need all the corporations we can get to be able to respond to the various security challenges across our country and the region," said Chidi Omeje, a security analyst.

Chinese and Nigerian flags fly on a Chinese Navy Task Group 162 warship on a visit to Nigeria at Apapa harbor in Lagos, on July 4, 2023.
Chinese and Nigerian flags fly on a Chinese Navy Task Group 162 warship on a visit to Nigeria at Apapa harbor in Lagos, on July 4, 2023.

China has been investing heavily in infrastructure in Africa, including Nigeria, for many years. Nigeria is one of China's top crude oil suppliers.

But the visit comes amid speculation that Beijing could be seeking to establish a naval base in the Gulf of Guinea.

Last year, U.S. defense officials said they worried that such a base could threaten U.S. national security.

Kabiru Adamu, an analyst with the Beacon security risk management firm, agrees the visit might have undisclosed objectives.

"In diplomatic practice there's usually the stated objective and then the latent objective. Security will be discussed during the five-day visit. China has the intention of establishing a diplomatic base in west Africa and this may be a move by China to convince Nigeria to support that desire," Adamu said.

In 2016, China promised economic support for Sao Tome, a small African nation in the Atlantic Ocean, shortly after it cut ties with Taiwan.

Sao Tome is located in the heart of the Gulf of Guinea, making it a potential hub for oil and gas production.

"Beijing is definitely interested in expanding its influence in Africa to protect its assets, it has invested massively in African countries pre-COVID, during COVID and post-COVID. It will definitely want to protect those investments and one of the ways it can do that is to strengthen security ties with African countries," Adamu said.

In January, Nigeria opened the Lekki Deep Sea Port in Lagos, built by state-owned China Harbor Engineering Company.

Last month, the Lekki Deep Sea Port berthed a 300-meter-long vessel from China, the largest since the port was launched.