On April 18, the second African head of state to visit China in the space of six months landed in Beijing. President Ali Bongo Ondimba of Gabon was in China for a four-day state visit, including a meeting with President Xi Jinping. That visit was preceded by a trip in the opposite direction by Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang in January 2023 as part of his annual African tour.
This was of course not the first state visit between the two countries. Former Gabonese President Omar Bongo Ondimba visited China 11 times during his 41-year tenure, and his son and successor, Ali Bongo, is on his fifth visit since taking office in 2009. Meanwhile, Chinese leaders and officials have made 12 official visits to Gabon since 2000.
Importantly, during this visit, President Ali Bongo and Xi elevated their bilateral relationship from a “comprehensive cooperative partnership” to a “comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership,” demonstrating their mutual interest in further engagement. A “comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership” is considered the highest level of bilateral relations for China, only after the “China-Russia comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination” and the “China-Pakistan all-weather strategic cooperative partnership.”
A comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership implies a close and mutually beneficial relationship that encompasses a wide range of areas, including political, economic, cultural, and security domains. With this move, Gabon becomes the 11th African country to establish this level of relationship with China, highlighting the centrality of Africa in China’s foreign relations. (The others are the Republic of Congo, Senegal, Guinea, Mozambique, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, Kenya, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and Tanzania Three more African countries have “comprehensive strategic partnerships” with China: South Africa, Egypt, and Algeria.)
But what strategic interest does the African continent’s third most wealthy country by per capita GDP really have in China, and why might Gabon be a priority for Beijing?
Gabon established diplomatic relations with Beijing in 1974, 14 years after Gabon’s independence from France. Today, China is Gabon’s largest trading partner. In 2022, Gabon exported close to $4 billion worth of commodities to China, accounting for over half of its total exports. Within this, crude oil (60.8 percent), manganese ores (31.7 percent) and sawn wood (6.3 percent) account for almost all exports.
China imports 22 percent of its manganese ore from Gabon, but is far less reliant on Gabon for other resources. Imports from Gabon represent less than 1 percent and 1.3 percent of China’s crude oil and timber demand, respectively.
Gabon aims to transform into an emerging market by 2025 under the Emergent Gabon Strategic Plan (PSGE), Gabon’s development plan, known as Emerging Gabon 2025, seeks to diversify the economy and reduce its dependence on oil. The PSGE has three pillars: Industrial Gabon, Services Gabon, and Green Gabon. China has a potentially crucial role to play in all three areas, but only if Gabon strategically engages China.
First, the Industrial Gabon pillar of the PSGE aims to diversify the economy and increase value-addition in natural resource industries, particularly in the oil and mining sectors. Given that China is the largest source of demand for these resources, as well as the world’s current manufacturing hub, to achieve the goals of Industrial Gabon, it is imperative to attract Chinese investment in diversifying exports, increase investment in processing, and build industrial capacity, including in manufacturing of environmental goods.
Similarly, Services Gabon aims to promote the development of innovative industries in tourism, finance, and other service sectors. Gabon has abundant tourism resources, with 13 national parks created to protect forests and wildlife, making it a potential destination for eco-tourism. Gabon’s tourism industry is still in its infancy, but with the right investments and partnerships it could flourish. China, with the largest population in the world, presents itself as one of the biggest markets for Gabon’s eco-tourism promotion. Gabon could also leverage China’s experience in financial technology (fintech) and e-commerce.
China also matters to Green Gabon, which focuses on the development of the timber, agriculture, livestock, and fisheries sectors. Gabon is known for biodiversity, with an impressive 85 percent of its total area covered in forests, which makes the country a net absorber of carbon. Despite timber exports accounting for only 9 percent of Gabon’s total exports, there is potential for this sector to grow in a controlled and added value way, to help reduce the country’s economic dependence on oil and minerals. Chinese investment has been a major source of support for Gabon’s forestry sector, with Chinese companies managing over 6 million hectares of woodland in Gabon – more than half of the country’s commercial logging areas.
Finally, whether for achievement of industry, services, or green development, Chinese contractors and finance will likely be crucial in building the necessary infrastructure. This is an area China has specialized in versus other international lenders, including for countries like Gabon that – despite having over 90 other countries ahead of it in economic terms – are deemed too rich to access concessional loans from multilateral banks. Recent Chinese loans to Gabon include funding for two hydroelectric dams and a 22-kilometer road project, which, though relatively small, provide a foundation for new economic activities.
However, none of these key desires will happen without the sanctioning of the Chinese government at the highest level – hence the need for the elevation of the partnership from the Gabonese perspective. Indeed, during the visit, several bilateral cooperation documents were signed in key areas such as investment, agriculture, housing and urban construction, and climate change, which are all critical to the success of the PSGE. China and Gabon also reiterated their commitment to build a high-quality Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which signifies that BRI is still a key component of China’s foreign policy toward Africa.
So why might Gabon be of interest to China? Or put differently, what could China’s interest be in sanctioning delivery on Gabon’s key desires?
Gabon is a leading country in Central Africa, with both late President Omar Bongo and current President Ali Bongo playing a prominent role in mediating regional conflicts and promoting regional economic cooperation through the Economic Community of Central African States (CEMAC), which Ali Bongo currently chairs. His last state visit prior to Beijing was for the CEMAC Summit in March 2023.
Furthermore, Gabon is currently one of the 10 non-permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and the chair of the African Group of Negotiators (AGN) on climate change, indicating its strong role on the international stage. China has potentially significant economic interests in the Central African region, as well as interests in the United Nations and climate change. By investing in Gabon, China can forge a strong political relationship with the country and improve China’s own diplomatic and economic knowledge and impact in the region.
In the joint statement on the establishment of the China-Gabon comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership, the BRI (an initiative that was launched 10 years ago) plus three newer initiatives – the Global Development Initiative (GDI), the Global Security Initiative (GSI), and Global Civilization Initiative (GCI) – were all mentioned. With its infrastructure focus, ensuring BRI continues, particularly on the African continent, will be crucial for China to achieve goals of forging a strong political relationship with Gabon. Yes, non-economic factors in international relations matter, but economic development across the African region remains a priority.
That’s why the contribution of China to Gabon’s development plan will be key to track in the coming years, to see whether the rhetorical upgrade really is leading to an upgrade on the ground or not.