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China Continues Its Search for a Maritime Military Presence in West Africa 

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China Continues Its Search for a Maritime Military Presence in West Africa 

Reports that China is seeking a military base in Gabon fit into a broader pattern.

China Continues Its Search for a Maritime Military Presence in West Africa 

Libreville harbor in Gabon.

Credit: Depositphotos

In an article published in February, the Wall Street Journal recounted efforts by U.S. government officials to counter China’s plans for a military base in the Central African state of Gabon. This news does not come as a surprise. For years officials and media outlets have reported on China’s efforts to seek a military presence in West Africa, allowing it to access the Gulf of Guinea and the Atlantic Ocean for the first time. Similarly, U.S. officials also claimed that China was attempting to seek out a military base in neighboring Equatorial Guinea, at Bata port, although no such base or construction seems to have come to fruition so far.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the China-Gabon relationship. In recent years, this relationship has only strengthened. China became Gabon’s top trading partner, with two-way trade reaching $4.55 billion, in 2022. In 2016 during former President Ali Bongo’s visit to China, Bongo and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, elevated the China-Gabon relationship to a “comprehensive cooperative partnership.” In 2018 and 2023, Chinese navy ships docked in Gabon for friendly visits. 

In April of last year, Gabon and China again upgraded their relationship, this time to a “comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership.” China noted at the time that the “Chinese military stands ready to work with the Gabonese side to earnestly fulfill the important consensuses reached by the two heads of state, intensify high-level exchanges, and actively carry out all-round pragmatic cooperation, so as to uplift both the level and quality of mil-to-mil relations and make positive contributions to international and regional peace and stability.”

After the 2023 coup ousting Bongo from power, it is yet to be determined how the China-Gabon relationship will continue under interim President Brice Clothaire Oligui Nguema, especially as the U.S. is trying to further undermine this partnership.

While China is already invested in multiple commercial ports along the coast of West Africa – such as Kribi port in Cameroon, Lekki Port in Nigeria, and Lome Port in Togo – a military presence in the Gulf of Guinea would allow the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to expand beyond its current waters in the Indo-Pacific and Gulf of Aden into the Atlantic Ocean, opening the door for the Chinese military to the rest of the world. A base in West Africa would allow the PLA to go on longer and more distant missions than is possible right now, as Chinese ships will be able to replenish, rest, and refuel at such secure locations. 

Concerningly for the United States, which has recently been overtaken by the PLA Navy (PLAN) in fleet size, this would also mean a growing proximity of the Chinese military to U.S. territory on the side of the Atlantic.

The Big Picture: China’s Drive for a Global Maritime Presence

China’s attempts to establish a permanent military base in West Africa fits into its larger quest for a global military presence. In 2016, construction started by Djibouti Port. Shortly after, it was revealed that the PLA had built its first overseas base there: the People’s Liberation Army Support Base. 

Since its success in Djibouti, the Chinese government has launched a campaign to build a global maritime presence, through commercial investments and through security facilities. Its second success is the construction at the Cambodian naval base of Ream. Although Ream is not exclusively for Chinese use, and both China and Cambodia have vehemently denied it is a Chinese military installation, a Chinese official confirmed that parts of the newly-expanded Ream base would also be made available for PLA use. The docking of two PLAN warships in December 2023, which left Ream in mid-January, further confirmed the news. 

And it does not stop there. The October 2023 U.S. Department of Defense China’s Military Power Report outlined that the PRC has already considered “Burma [Myanmar], Thailand, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, United Arab Emirates, Kenya, Equatorial Guinea, Seychelles, Tanzania, Angola, Nigeria, Namibia, Mozambique, Bangladesh, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and Tajikistan” as potential locations and that it probably already has attempted to set up bases in Namibia, Vanuatu, and the Solomon Islands. In comparison, a July 2023 AidData publication highlighted on eight possible basing locations, based on Chinese financial flows abroad: Hambantota, Sri Lanka; Bata, Equatorial Guinea; Gwadar, Pakistan; Kribi, Cameroon; Ream, Cambodia; Vanuatu; Nacala, Mozambique; and Nouakchott, Mauritania. 

Beyond these ambitions for a global military presence, China has also heavily invested in port and terminal ownership abroad. In total, Chinese companies are responsible for 92 port projects, with 13 having a majority Chinese stake. While some of these port projects date back years ago, China’s motivations for acquiring port stakes may have evolved alongside its growing power. And, as China’s influence over global ports has increased, international concerns have also arisen over the potential for these sites to be used as dual-use facilities, serving both commercial and military vessels, especially as at a third of these facilities PLAN warships have already made port calls and docked

Some host governments have already started to push back against this dual-use nature of their ports and commercial assets, with Sri Lanka recently issuing a one-year ban on the docking of foreign research vessels, despite China’s 99-year lease of the Port of Hambantota.

China’s Maritime Strategy 

Among these recent developments, it no longer is a speculation but rather an emerging fact that China has been working on developing a network of investments, ports, facilities, and bases to create a global maritime presence that will allow it to exert and assume power abroad. Despite its efforts to create this intentional web of maritime assets and facilities since 2016, China’s efforts to establish a maritime presence remain and will continue to be highly contingent on geopolitical context. 

While current developments at Djibouti and Ream have followed different patterns, the case of Gabon may resemble China’s approach in first establishing an anti-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden before settling on a PLA base in Djibouti, as the Gulf of Guinea also encounters piracy issues and as Chinese vessels have been affected by this.  

While China’s approach will continue to adapt in the future, this emerging web of maritime presence already necessitates actions by the United States and concerned partners. Recently, the U.S. Development Finance Corporation (DFC) committed $553 million in loans for the construction of a new deep-water container terminal at the Port of Colombo, Sri Lanka, with the Indian-led Adani group taking the lead on the construction. This comes along the backdrop of the Chinese-owned port of Hambantota, which in recent years sparked speculation that it would become a site of China’s overseas military presence. Such recent investment marked a first step in combining commercial investments with U.S. government action to hinder China’s efforts. 

The U.S. government seems to have expanded efforts in preventing a Chinese base in West Africa over the course of the past two years. However, instead of reacting to these site-specific scenarios, Washington needs to focus on a multi-faceted strategy of commercial investments, diplomatic conversations, and security partnerships to respond to – and predict – China’s search for maritime presence abroad.