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US-China Diplomatic Showdown: Atlantic Hegemony Battles in Africa

U.S. and China Engage in Diplomatic Battles over Military Base Construction in Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, and Djibouti
U.S. Thwarts China’s Attempt to Build a Military Base in Gabon, a Key Atlantic Territory
Both Countries Woo Equatorial Guinea with Economic and Military Assistance Offers
Fierce Under-the-Radar Support to Secure Dominance in Djibouti, the “Horn of Africa”

Chinese President Xi Jinping walks with then-Gabonese President Ali Bongo Ondimba towards the meeting room at the People’s Great Hall in Beijing on April 19, last year. ⓒ Xinhua/Yonhap News

The United States and China find themselves locked in a diplomatic showdown in Africa. China is actively pursuing the establishment of overseas military bases to support the Atlantic expansion of the People’s Liberation Army. In response, the United States, unwilling to tolerate the regular presence of Chinese warships across the Atlantic, is pushing back in the region.

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported on the 10th that African countries are emerging as a new battlefield in the US-China diplomatic war over Atlantic maritime dominance. According to the U.S. think tank Quincy Institute, the United States has overseas military bases in about 80 countries worldwide, while China operates one.

Gabon in West Africa is becoming the focal point for the U.S. and China. According to the WSJ, Gabonese President Ali Bongo Ondimba told John Finner, Deputy Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs (NSC), in a meeting last August that he had “promised to build a Chinese military base to Chinese President Xi Jinping.” President Bongo had a summit with President Xi during his state visit to Beijing in April of that year. With a population of 2.5 million and an area 1.2 times the size of the Korean Peninsula, Gabon is an oil-producing country known as the “Kuwait of Africa.”

The Joe Biden administration was on high alert. If China builds and operates a naval base in Gabon, it would become a severe threat to Atlantic maritime dominance, as it would enable ship anchorage and maintenance. Therefore, the United States was compelled to take all necessary measures to prevent such a development.

Then, the opportunity came in the U.S.’s favor. A military coup occurred in Gabon at the end of August last year. Brice Oligui Onguema, Commander of the Gabonese Republican Guard, arrested his cousin, President Bongo, on charges of treason and put him under house arrest. He then took office as President on September 4.

Seizing the moment, the Biden administration negotiated with the newly appointed President of Gabon to withdraw the commitment to constructing a military base for China. Deputy Assistant Finner persuaded President Onguema during the U.N. General Assembly in New York in September, and senior State Department officials also visited Gabon to initiate a campaign. Gabon finally accepted the U.S. request, stating, “Even though it is true that former President Bongo promised President Xi to build a naval base, it was only verbal without any formal document established.”

A ceremony to commemorate the operation of the Chinese naval base was held in Djibouti, Africa, on August 1, 2017, attended by Vice Admiral Tian Zhong of the People’s Liberation Army Navy and the Djibouti Minister of Defense. ⓒ Screenshot of the Chinese Navy’s website

Reports indicate that the United States is actively exploring avenues to enhance military collaboration with Gabon as a goodwill gesture. Also, it selected Gabon as the venue for this year’s joint maritime training with Western and African countries. This is a very unusual move for the U.S. government, which has strict standards to the point of legally prohibiting aid to countries where a coup has occurred. Judd Devermont, Director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), explained, “Given the paramount national security implications, the United States finds itself compelled to cooperate with Gabon.”

The United States also focuses its diplomatic efforts on Equatorial Guinea, located between Gabon and Cameroon. This move is prompted by China’s expansive offering, a “big bundle of offerings,” including various infrastructure construction proposals, to push for military base construction in Equatorial Guinea, which faces the U.S. East Coast across the Atlantic.

Equatorial Guinea, a former Spanish colony that gained independence in 1968, is a small country in Africa with a population of 1.7 million and an area only one-eighth the size of the Korean Peninsula. President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo has ruled with an iron fist for over 40 years since 1979.

China has already built a commercial deep-water port in Bata, Equatorial Guinea’s largest city and a major port city on the Gulf of Guinea, capable of accommodating large ships. It has also built a highway connecting Bata and central Africa and, reportedly, Equatorial Guinea’s police training and armament. The area where China is pushing for military base construction is also reported to be Bata.

Experts point out that this can be seen as an expansion of the military strategy of the new Silk Road “One Belt, One Road” (Belt and Road Initiative) project, which President Xi has ambitiously promoted, and China has actively pursued in Africa.

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army is conducting operations in the waters near the naval base built in Djibouti, Africa, in 2017. ⓒ Yonhap News

Desperate, the United States reached out to President Mbasogo, who has been involved in human rights violation controversies. In October 2021, it urgently dispatched Deputy Assistant Finner and other high-ranking officials. One of their reasons for visiting Equatorial Guinea was to block China’s attempt to build a military base. The Biden administration struggles to convey that Equatorial Guinea’s involvement in the US-China competition is shortsighted.

Equatorial Guinea, drawing the attention of both nations, appears to be actively leveraging the circumstances of receiving diplomatic overtures. When a large amount of military supplies exploded near an army base in Bata in March 2021, resulting in over 100 deaths, the United States provided aid. In the summer of that year, it also included the Equatorial Guinea military in training held in the Gulf of Guinea led by the U.S. Navy.

In Djibouti, the U.S. and China, both of which have established military bases, are engaged in fierce competition for dominance in East Africa. The United States, which had enjoyed a monopoly here, became very uncomfortable when China broke through strong U.S. containment measures and established the continent’s first overseas military base in 2017. A Chinese military base was established right under the nose of the US Africa Command.

Djibouti, surrounded by Somalia, Eritrea, and Ethiopia, has a population of 1.15 million and an area that is only one-tenth the size of the Korean Peninsula. It is a strategic point connecting Asia, the Middle East, and Africa due to its location at the crossroads of the “Horn of Africa,” where the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden meet. It is also suitable as a logistics hub as it borders both the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea.

The U.S. military base in Lemmonier, Djibouti, and the Chinese naval base are only about 9.3 miles apart. In 2017, Thomas Waldhauser, Commander of the Africa Command, testified in the U.S. Congress, “It is a serious security concern, and we have conveyed our concerns to the Djiboutian government.”

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