In August, Ali Bongo, then-president of the Central African nation of Gabon, made a startling revelation to a top White House aide: During a meeting at his presidential palace, Bongo admitted he had secretly promised Chinese leader Xi Jinping that Beijing could station military forces on Gabon’s Atlantic Ocean coast.
Alarmed, U.S. principal deputy national security adviser Jon Finer urged Bongo to retract the offer, according to an American national security official. The U.S. considers the Atlantic its strategic front yard and sees a permanent Chinese military presence there—particularly a naval base, where Beijing could rearm and repair warships—as a serious threat to American security.
“Any time the Chinese start nosing around a coastal African country, we get anxious,” a senior U.S. official said.
The charged exchange between Bongo and Finer in Libreville, Gabon’s capital, was just one skirmish in the great-power maneuvering between the U.S. and China in Africa. China is conducting a backroom campaign to secure a naval base on the continent’s western shores, American officials say. And, for more than two years, the U.S. has been running a parallel effort to persuade African leaders to deny the People’s Liberation Army Navy a port in Atlantic waters.
The Chinese government didn’t reply to a written request for comment. The Foreign Ministry said it was unaware of the government’s military plans in Gabon or elsewhere on Africa’s Atlantic coast.
Within weeks of his meeting with Finer, Bongo was overthrown by his own presidential guard, and the U.S. was forced to start again, trying to persuade the new Gabonese junta leader to shun Chinese overtures.
It’s a battle American officials say they are winning. So far, no African country with an Atlantic coastline has signed a deal with China, U.S. officials say.
“We’re confident that Gabon is not going to permit a permanent P.L.A. presence or establish a Chinese military facility,” the U.S. national-security official said.
Next door, in Equatorial Guinea, where U.S. officials have previously flagged Chinese efforts to open a base, Washington has seen no signs of military construction at a Chinese-built, deep-water commercial port in the city of Bata, which would be the most likely spot for such a presence, the national security official said.
Authorities in Equatorial Guinea, a repressive, family-run oil state, have “consistently assured us that they will not have the P.R.C. construct a base,” the official said.
Chinese navy ships freely transit international waters. And Chinese companies have built some 100 commercial ports in Africa since 2000, from Mauritania in the far west to Kenya on the Indian Ocean, according to the Chinese government.