Africa has become a focal point for the escalating strategic competition between the United States and China. This competition has manifested most recently in the efforts of both nations to establish or prevent the establishment of naval bases along Africa’s strategically vital coastlines, particularly on the Atlantic. This scenario underscores the importance Africa holds in the strategic calculus of these global powers, reflecting broader shifts in the international order.
The United States has been actively engaging with nations such as Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, in an effort to discourage them from allowing China to establish a military presence on their shores. This engagement is part of a wider strategy by Washington to contain Beijing’s growing influence across Africa, which includes potential naval outposts that could reshape the strategic landscape to America’s detriment.
One might ask why the United States is not engaging with the purpose of establishing it own foothold in these nations, rather than merely discouraging association with China. This shortsightedness and lack of cohesive strategy from the Biden Administration is no match for a proactive China, promising, bribing and buying their way into control in these countries.
The urgency and significance of these diplomatic efforts were highlighted when Ali Bongo, the former President of Gabon, disclosed in a meeting with a top White House aide that he had secretly promised Chinese leader Xi Jinping that Beijing could station military forces on Gabon’s Atlantic Ocean coast. This revelation prompted a swift response from the U.S., with Principal Deputy National Security Adviser Jon Finer urging Bongo to rescind the offer, emphasizing the gravity of a permanent Chinese military presence in what the U.S. considers its strategic vicinity.
This incident in Gabon exemplifies the intense diplomatic and strategic engagements characterizing U.S.-China relations in Africa. Gabon’s situation took a dramatic turn with a military coup that saw Bongo ousted from power. The coup necessitated a recalibration of U.S. strategy, now focused on convincing the new Gabonese leadership to reject Chinese military advances. According to a U.S. national security official, the efforts seem fruitful, with confidence expressed that “Gabon is not going to permit a permanent P.L.A. presence or establish a Chinese military facility.”
Adjacent to Gabon, Equatorial Guinea has also been a point of interest in the U.S.-China strategic rivalry. Despite previous concerns over Chinese efforts to open a base, particularly in the Chinese-built, deep-water commercial port in Bata, U.S. officials have observed no signs of military construction. This observation is bolstered by assurances from Equatorial Guinea’s authorities that they will not permit the construction of a Chinese base, reflecting the complex negotiations and assurances characterizing the engagements between African states and global powers.
To date, China’s military footprint in Africa is embodied by its base in Djibouti, strategically positioned on the Horn of Africa. This base, overlooking crucial maritime routes, is indicative of China’s broader strategic ambitions to secure its trade routes and enhance its global maritime capabilities. The presence of this base, capable of docking an aircraft carrier or nuclear submarines, not only increases China’s power projection in the region but also places it in close proximity to the largest American base in Africa, Camp Lemonnier.
The great power competition in Africa is not merely a matter of military bases but also involves a wider spectrum of engagements, including infrastructure investments, development assistance, and diplomatic outreach. For instance, in the aftermath of the Gabon coup, U.S. officials engaged with the new leadership, emphasizing the importance of democratic governance alongside discussions on security cooperation. Such engagements illustrate the multifaceted nature of U.S. strategy in Africa, aiming to bolster diplomatic ties, offer development assistance, and emphasize democratic values in the face of China’s growing influence.
The actions and decisions of African nations, caught between the competing interests of global powers, will not only shape their own strategic landscapes but also have broader implications for the dynamics of international relations and security architecture in the 21st century.
Unlike the U.S., with its myopic policies, China is aggressively pursuing deals with corrupt and naive government officials in Africa, in pursuit of control over resources and additions to its trade bloc. While the short term benefits of wooing Africa are not as rewarding, China’s long term strategy might pay off.