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Controversy Sparks Amid Chinese Military Bases in Africa

In an international world of constant strategic moves, especially when it comes to military assets, there is bound to be conflict between countries. This time, one such conflict happens to be flaring between China and the United States over nothing less than the continent of Africa. A proposed naval base on Africa’s coastline is causing major issues between the two leading global superpowers.

The planned Chinese base in question would be located on the Atlantic coastline of Gabon on Africa’s western coast. Normally, the existence of a naval base in Africa may not prove to be this significant, but this region in particular seems to be of piqued interest to China. In August of 2023 the then-president of Gabon, Ali Bongo, covertly promised Chinese officials that they would be allowed to build their own military base in the area. This pertinent information was revealed to an unnamed top White House aide at a meeting with Bongo. Jonathan Finer, the U.S. principal deputy national security adviser, has since urged Gabonese leadership to prohibit China from gaining any sort of influence or land in the region to house a naval base, claiming that the U.S. would see this as a major threat to its own security.

The U.S.’ fight to block China’s advancement into African territory has been unfolding for over two years, with the Biden administration warning in August of 2022 that China “sees the region as an important arena to challenge the rules-based international order, advance its own narrow commercial and geopolitical interests, undermine transparency and openness, and weaken U.S. relations with African peoples and governments.” However, this has been a difficult endeavor for several reasons.

First, China is relatively more economically strong than the African states to which it is offering an immense amount of financial support, promising to bolster African jobs and industries. These loans and economic incentives, in turn, lead to another bargaining chip that China holds against Africa: the immense amount of debt the latter owes to the former. It is entirely possible that China could somehow bargain a deal that ends with Africa with significantly less debt and China with a new military base on the coast. Even on top of the debt Africa has fallen into, China holds a numerous amount of leases on critical pieces of infrastructure such as airports and shipping ports that give the Chinese government an even stronger upper hand.

This proposed base is particularly interesting due to its strategic value. Logically, it could allow China to conduct and maintain military operations further away from its homeland, and closer to the U.S. In theory, this could leave the door open for China to repair its ships closer to the U.S. and allow, if needed, Chinese naval troops to reach U.S. soil more rapidly. But, the question has to be asked: Is the U.S. being hypocritical regarding China’s aim to plant a naval base on the West African coastline? 

The U.S. has military bases all over the world, even off the coast of China—directly in its backyard, yet the U.S. is quite concerned with China having naval bases even an ocean away from U.S. soil. There seems to be a similar sentiment here to that which occurred during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when U.S. leaders became alarmed upon learning that Russia was shipping missiles into Cuban ports after the U.S. had already planted missiles in Turkey. Indeed, this kind of sentiment hardly seems foreign to the U.S., as is represented throughout history via instances upon instances of the U.S. government offering excuses for why it can do something but other countries cannot do the same.

To form a judgment either way, it is necessary to consider why the U.S. itself has a naval base in Africa, called Camp Lemonnier, in the first place. The U.S. claims to be attempting to prevent the uprising of a potential new bin Laden or “someone worse” in Africa. Currently, there are 18 different jihadist terror organizations active in Africa, most of them operating within “areas of concern” near Camp Lemonnier, which is the only permanent U.S. military base in Africa and home to over 4,500 U.S. soldiers. The camp is apparently responsible for dealing with the most violent, dangerous branches of al-Qaeda and ISIS, and brings the U.S. within 70 miles of Yemen, where civil war and terrorism rage.

In addition to this, Somalia is located just 20 miles south of the camp which is also a hotspot for al-Qaeda activity. Many in the U.S. military, such as Army Major General William Zana, believe that this location could be pivotal in preventing another terrorist attack like the one that occurred on September 11, 2001, just 23 years ago. 

With China’s seeming willingness to work even with terrorist organizations, it is comprehendible that the U.S. would strongly disapprove of a Chinese naval base on the coast of Africa. To the question of U.S. hypocrisy, yes, the U.S. is being hypocritical—but it is unreasonable to expect the U.S. to do what is not in its strategic interest. Any other country would be expected to do the same, and the U.S. arguably should not be held to any higher moral standard than the rest of the globe. On the contrary view, though, the democratic values that uphold U.S. society and influence public opinion would seem to demand otherwise. 

Regardless, on the whole, despite the U.S.’ dismay over the potential of a Chinese naval base on the western coast of Africa, there is little much the American government can do to prevent it from happening. China clearly has the upper hand in the situation, and Africa appears to be intrigued by China’s negotiations and potential offers.

Image Source: Global Times

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