Chinese navy makes rare foray into West Africa with Nigeria visit

BEIJING (Reuters) -A naval fleet of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) led by the destroyer Nanning arrived in Nigeria on Sunday for a rare visit by the Chinese military to Africa’s Atlantic coast, where Beijing has long made efforts to grow its influence.

The Chinese ambassador to Nigeria hailed the five-day visit as a milestone in ties, and the Nigerian navy expressed willingness to work with China to tackle maritime security threats and maintain stability in the Gulf of Guinea, the Chinese embassy said in a statement on Monday.

The destroyer and an accompanying frigate, Sanya, along with a supply ship, Weishanhu, arrived off the port of Lagos, with the Nanning berthing for a port call through Thursday, the Nigerian navy said in a statement.

Oil-rich West Africa is an important global exporter of crude. The region, mostly Angola and Nigeria, is among China’s top oil suppliers. Major Chinese oil explorer CNOOC Ltd also engages in deep-sea production off the coast of Nigeria.

In January, Nigeria opened a billion-dollar Chinese-built deep seaport in Lagos. The new Lekki deep sea port, one of the region’s biggest, is 75%-owned by state-owned China Harbour Engineering Co. and the Singapore-based Tolaram group.

There has also been speculation the Gulf of Guinea could offer a base for China’s military. Last year, U.S. defence officials expressed concern that such a base, possibly in Equatorial Guinea, could threaten U.S. national security.

In 2017, China opened its first overseas naval base in Djibouti, one of the world’s most important choke points for maritime trade, fanning concern that Beijing might set up more regional “logistics facilities” as its military develops the capacity to operate thousands of kilometres from home.

Over the last three decades, China has widened its influence in almost every African nation through investment, trade and loans.

In 2016, the cash-strapped island nation of Sao Tome and Principe in the Gulf established relations with Beijing after cutting ties with democratically governed Taiwan, which China claims as part of its territory.

(Reporting by Ryan Woo; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)