Equatorial Guinea: A Case Study In The Impact Of US-China Rivalry In Africa – Analysis


By Zachary Davis

(FPRI) — Equatorial Guinea is a country that was freed from colonial rule but never truly escaped the influence of the economic superpowers in a globalized world. When Spain granted independence to the Republic of Equatorial Guinea in 1968, Francis Macias Nguema came to power in a dictatorship that saw the country’s infrastructure destroyed and half of the population jailed in only eleven years. Nguema was overthrown in 1979 by Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who remains the country’s leader to this day.

Despite its size, Equatorial Guinea is currently at the center of the US-China rivalry for influence in Africa. The experiences of this tiny spot off the coast of West Africa provides insights into the dynamics of relations with developing countries in a globalized world.

It’s the Economy, Stupid

Under the Obiang regime, Equatorial Guinea has experienced a shift in economic alliances that has enriched the elite but failed to meet the needs of the population. From 2000 to 2012, the country received $50 billion in capital deployment from American-based oil and gas companies. However, in more recent years, the country has drifted closer to China, in all likelihood because the United States would like to  a political change while China is fully supportive of Obiang’s regime.

Dependence on the fossil fuel industry has inhibited infrastructure that would benefit the general public and the lack of mechanized agriculture has forced the country to rely on neighbors, such as Cameroon, for fresh produce. As a result, most of the country’s citizens are focused more on daily survival than the country’s geopolitical importance.

Immediately after Obiang assumed control, Equatorial Guinea was highly dependent on Spanish aid. However, following the discovery of oil deposits in 1991, the country’s economy soared, fueling a great deal of development. This was significant because it provided an alternative revenue stream after loss of privileged access to Spanish markets destroyed the export economy

Like many African countries, Equatorial Guinea has become caught up in the rivalry between the United States and China. While both counties are involved with Equatorial Guinea, China has a significant advantage. Obiang understands that the United States would prefer a less autocratic regime in Equatorial Guinea, while China imposes no such conditionality in its assistance programs. The relationship between the United States and Equatorial Guinea will likely continue to drift apart, with Obiang clearly favoring China’s nonconditional assistance and its support for his hold on power.

Equatorial Guinea’s economic future is uncertain because of its reliance on non-renewable energy in a world transitioning toward renewable energy. According to data from the International Renewable Energy Agency, the country ranks 153 of the 224 surveyed countries in percentage of renewable energy use. More important than domestic energy use, however, is its reliance on export of fossil fuel with a global shift toward more renewable sources, which spells potential disaster for its export market. Oil accounts for 90 percent of government revenue and 80 percent of total exports, with natural gas being another primary export. Revenue decline could be particularly accelerated by the fact that its export customers are using advanced technology to make the transition to renewable energy sources more quickly.

In addition, the country’s domestic oil reserves have been declining since 2012 and are estimated to run out by 2035. Equatorial Guinea—both domestically and internationally—must transition to renewable energy simply because it has no other choice. 

Domestic Political Environment

Since 1979, Equatorial Guinea has been governed by the same man, (Teodoro) Nguema. Few countries in the world have had a leader who has retained power for so long. Government corruption is rampant, with the country ranking 188th out of 193 countries in control of corruption according to data from the World Bank. The discovery of oil led to an increase in corruption. Prior to the discovery of the oil deposits in Equatorial Guinea, Obiang was democratizing the country in order to appease the Western donors that he relied on. The democratization ended when oil revenue provided him with an alternative income stream. Freedom House scores Equatorial Guinea as five out of 100 in terms of political freedom, or not free, only marginally better than North Korea. The low ranking stems from the lack of an independent electoral body for fair election management, imprisonment of political opposition,  and rampant nepotism and cronyism. For example, Obiang has appointed his son as vice president, an indication of his desire to keep power within his family. While there is a legislature that is composed of a bicameral parliament with a 100-seat Chamber of Deputies and a seventy-seat Senate, the legislature has almost no power in comparison to the executive branch. In essence, Obiang has the final say in everything, with no checks on his actions.

Infrastructure: The Only Bright Spot in a Dark Future

While the political outlook is bleak, Equatorial Guinea’s infrastructure shows promise thanks to government support and foreign direct investment.

The government invests heavily in domestic infrastructure—particularly in roads, ports, and airports—to facilitate the economic growth needed to become a prominent emerging market. Financing of domestic projects constitutes over half of annual economic output, compared to less than 20 percent of output among countries in the European Union. As a result, over 80 percent of the country’s roads are paved and highways connect the city of Malabo to the local port and airport. Meanwhile, in the early 2010s, Equatorial Guinea became connected to the fiber-optic cables that run from Europe along the west coast of Africa.

The country has also received help from abroad in the form of foreign direct investment, especially from the African Development Bank. Recently, the bank approved a €73 million project to construct a bridgebetween Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea over the River Ntem. The plan is that the bridge will help with the emergence of industrial port activities and improve the transportation for the region.

Foreign Policy 

Equatorial Guinea is deeply enmeshed in the rivalry between the United States and China for influence in Africa. In 2022, the Biden administration sent high-ranking diplomats to the country in order to thwart plans for China to build a naval base in Equatorial Guinea, concerned the base would serve as a springboard for the Chinese navy in the Atlantic Ocean. The situation has put the Biden administration in a difficult position. To court Obiang and win out over China, the United States has to basically ignore the rampant election abuse and human rights violations in the country. This is a pattern that is, unfortunately, playing out in much of the Global South. For Equatorial Guinea, this is a win-win situation, with two global superpowers ferociously bidding for its support in an economic pseudo-proxy war.

US concerns about China, while sometimes probably overblown, are not entirely unfounded. China has already established a heavy economic footprint in Africa. According to the European Council on Foreign Relations, there are over 10,000 Chinese enterprises throughout Africa, which are projected to generate $250 billion annually by 2025.

Quality of Life 

After the discovery of oil deposits, the country’s economy went from primarily agricultural-based to economy-based on the extraction of oil and gas from the sea.

Despite the plentiful oil deposits, over two-thirds of the population lives below the poverty line as of 2020because political corruption keeps the wealth in the hands of the powerful. In fact, half the population lacks access to safe drinking waterdespite the efforts of international organizations to improve living conditions. The country even performs poorly in life expectancy and infant mortality compared to other sub-Saharan African countries. Equatorial Guinea, according to Human Rights Watch, shows that eliminating corruption is essentially a prerequisite to tackling the problem of extreme poverty.         


Equatorial Guinea is an illustration of China’s advantage in economic competition in the Global South, especially in countries with authoritarian governments. While many of the problems in Equatorial Guinea exist in other countries, US foreign policy strategy cannot be a one-size-fits-all cookie cutter approach. Each country has a unique culture and history that must be taken into account when crafting a strategic approach. The specific situation and the country’s unique needs must be factored in when deciding on a policy, and these must be weighed against US policy interests impacted by the country. In the case of Equatorial Guinea, the presence of a Chinese naval base on Africa’s west coast, so close to the US mainland, is of concern, but that must be weighed against the potential effect that ignoring the American commitment to human rights and rule of law has on our relations with other countries in Africa. This is not to say that the United States should not endeavor to establish effective relations with Equatorial Guinea, but those relations must be grounded in principle as well as practicality and not be based solely on US competition with China.

  • About the author: Zachary Davis is an incoming undergraduate student at the University of Pennsylvania pursuing a B.A. in Politics, Philosophy, and Economics, with expected graduation in mid-2028. Zachary served as a Research Intern with the Africa Program in Spring 2024.
  • Source: This article was published by FPRI

Published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute

Founded in 1955, FPRI (http://www.fpri.org/) is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization devoted to bringing the insights of scholarship to bear on the development of policies that advance U.S. national interests and seeks to add perspective to events by fitting them into the larger historical and cultural context of international politics.

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