In August of the previous year, a surprising revelation was made by Gabon’s ex-president during his conversation with Jonathan Feiner, the Deputy National Security Advisor of the United States. The discussion took place within the confines of his presidential palace, where he confessed about a covert agreement he had made with the Chinese leader Xi Jinping. As reported by the Wall Street Journal, he had given Beijing the permission to station its military forces on the Atlantic coastline of Gabon. However, as per the report, Feiner promptly advised the former president of Gabon to rescind the offer.
The Atlantic Ocean is perceived by the United States as a strategic point of control. Hence, any permanent Chinese military establishment, especially a naval base that could facilitate the rearming and repairing of warships, is seen as a significant threat to the security of the US. As stated by a senior American official to the American newspaper, “We are ultra-Orthodox.”
The heated dialogue between Bongo and Feiner in the capital of Gabon is a mere instance of the intense power struggle between the US and China in Africa. China has been discreetly attempting to set up naval bases on the western coast of the continent. On the other hand, the US has been striving for over two years to dissuade African leaders from allowing the Chinese military fleet to establish bases in the Atlantic Ocean.
However, Bongo was overthrown by his presidential guard mere weeks after his meeting with Feiner. The US then had to begin anew to convince the leader of the new Gabonese junta to withdraw the offer. According to American sources, “So far, no African country with an Atlantic coastline has signed an agreement with China.” A senior official at the US Department of National Security stated, “We are sure that Gabon does not intend to allow the permanent presence of the Chinese army or to establish a Chinese military facility.”
At the moment, negotiations regarding a security cooperation agreement are being held between the US and Gabon officials. Additionally, discussions about US training to aid Gabon in securing its borders have also been initiated. In November, the White House determined that Gabon would take part in the US-led West and Central Africa naval exercises this year. These exercises, involving naval forces from numerous countries, are intended to assist coastal states in combating piracy and illegal fishing.
Conversely, in Equatorial Guinea, the US had previously expressed concerns about China’s attempts to establish a base. An official stated, “Equatorial Guinean authorities have consistently assured us that they will not ask China to build a base.” However, the ambassador of Equatorial Guinea in Washington mentioned that China supplies them with military equipment and training, along with roads, ports, airports, and other infrastructure. Adding to it, he said, “we are surprised by the insistence of the US government because we have not received a request from the Chinese government to establish a naval base in Equatorial Guinea.”
Chinese naval ships have been freely traversing international waters. Moreover, since 2000, around 100 commercial ports in Africa have been built by Chinese companies. These ports stretch from Mauritania in the far west to Kenya in the Indian Ocean, as stated by the Chinese government. However, only one African port, Djibouti’s facility overlooking the Red Sea, serves as a permanent base for Chinese ships and troops. The Chinese base, which is capable of accommodating an aircraft carrier or nuclear submarines, is located only a short drive away from the largest American base in Africa. This American base serves as the focal point of the American campaign against the al-Qaeda branch operating in Somalia.
Mbamba Dizola, the director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, anticipates that the Biden administration will devise a legal method to provide all necessary incentives to counter China’s military ambitions. “This is a matter of tremendous security urgency,” said Dizola. Meanwhile, US officials are on the lookout to see where next the Chinese will set their sights. A senior White House official said, “When one door closes, they look for another opportunity.”