December 14, 2021 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 344

Dragon Rampant In The Land Of The Leopard

December 14, 2021 | By Amb. Alberto M. Fernandez*
Africa, China | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 344

The news hit me with grim amusement – news reports, first broken by the Wall Street Journal, that China was close to acquiring its first naval base on the Atlantic Ocean, in Equatorial Guinea.[1] Having been the U.S. ambassador in that relatively obscure, energy rich African state, I was hardly surprised. The news report mentioned that Biden Administration Deputy National Security Advisor Jonathan Finer had visited Malabo to warn ailing President Obiang Nguema Mbasogo and other regime leaders about the risk of such a move to U.S.-Equatorial Guinea relations. China downplayed the report saying that if this were to happen, "it would be different than what the U.S. has imagined. It would benefit the region without any harm."[2]

Whether or not the United States is able to dissuade the Equatoguineans to take such a step, the entire controversy is a bit of an object lesson in U.S.-China competition throughout Africa. China has had relations with Equatorial Guinea for 50 years but did not have an embassy in country when I was stationed there only nine years ago. Today it has a resident embassy, a consulate at Bata on the mainland, a Confucius Center at the national university, and massive construction projects.

The irony here is that, unlike so many other countries on the continent, Equatorial Guinea was an exception where the United States had, for years, a built-in advantage. A former Spanish colony, it belonged neither to the Anglophone, Francophone, or Lusophone bloc of African countries. It was a kind of outlier or orphan looking for a powerful patron. It was the Americans who discovered oil in the country in the 1990s, a fact that senior government officials would gratefully acknowledge. And it was American energy companies – ExxonMobil, Marathon, Noble Energy (now Chevron) – that developed and still dominate that all-important energy sector of the country's economy.

The authoritarian regime of President Obiang sincerely wanted closer relations with Washington but that was not to be. The country's maritime security needs are real enough with the Gulf of Guinea being a hotbed of piracy, mostly from Nigeria's Niger River Delta.[3] But U.S. Democrats and the advocacy community focused on the country's poor human rights record and corruption. Although skeptics noted that other African states with similar records, say Cameroon, Congo, or Angola, were treated better by Washington (Angola was the rare non-democratic country invited to President Biden's Democracy Summit in December 2021).[4] But Angola, the third largest trading partner of the U.S. in Sub-Saharan Africa, had much more oil and more wealth than Equatorial Guinea. The Obiang regime was rich enough to be a problem but also small enough to be treated as a near-pariah by Washington (as American oil companies produced the country's energy bonanza).

A comparison of the embassy websites of China and the United States is a fascinating contrast in priorities. The Chinese mission in Malabo highlighted the signing of a recent technical and economic cooperation agreement where Beijing's ambassador used the now familiar rhetoric of PRC foreign policy: "Mutual benefit and win-win cooperation," "South-South cooperation," and "common destiny" between the two countries.[5] The American Embassy in Malabo website meanwhile highlighted the inauguration of an "American Shelf" featuring information on the United States.[6] Despite the best efforts of hardworking American diplomats, the impression you get the more you look into the details of diplomatic activity is that of a considerably more modest, lower-level, and lowkey focus than that of the ambitious Chinese plan for Africa.[7] And that is not surprising from the American side given obvious political constraints in trying to strengthen ties with a (relatively small) country considered extremely problematic by the Washington consensus.[8] But the contrast between the two global rivals is not limited to this one country.

China has, of course, no human rights constraints. It can work in conditions and on projects for which the United States could never hope to compete. In Sudan, under the Bashir regime, China took over oil projects abandoned by U.S. companies because of human rights concerns. In Equatorial Guinea, I remember diplomats from countries like Egypt, Turkey, and Brazil, looking to snag construction contracts and incurious about human rights concerns, complaining about China's competitive advantage, an advantage they could not match.[9]

It is not as though the United States is not aware of the Chinese resource and relationship rush occurring in Africa (and by extension, occurring elsewhere in Latin America and Asia). Here again, Washington seemed to have a clear advantage early on. The African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) was first approved by Congress in 2000 and was extended until 2025. In 2008, the U.S. Defense Department launched the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM). In 2010 the Obama Administration started the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), followed in 2013 by the launch of Power Africa, an initiative to double access to electricity on the continent. In 2019, the Trump Administration announced the Prosper Africa initiative in order to increase reciprocal trade. These were all worthwhile initiatives and absolutely targeted key areas: trade, defense, energy, and youth.

But China has been catching up. Its first overseas military base opened in Djibouti in 2017. Its trade relationship with Africa dwarfs that of the United States despite our efforts. Beijing has clearly outmaneuvered the United States in tying up access to scarce resources like cobalt in Africa.[10] The sense in much of Africa seems to be that while Washington can still do things to you, it cannot do much for you, certainly not as much as China.[11] And what Washington can do seems to come with strings (AGOA, for example, incorporates labor rights and moves towards a free market, military ties have even more strings), if it comes at all.

Regardless of the good work of the past, and the laudable American concern for human rights and democracy in Africa (and elsewhere), one cannot help but feel that the United States finds itself ill-prepared in a burgeoning great power competition spreading across the globe, a scramble for resources, markets, and allies, that involves not only China but the EU and lesser powers like Russia, Turkey, and Iran. And while we (and some Africans) may see China's role in Africa as predatory, others may find it less so, especially when they do not want the baggage or cannot afford the prices of less predatory Westerners. China is not only on the march in Africa, but is on track to surpass the United States as Latin America's main trading partner, in America's own hemispheric backyard.[12]

Biden's Democracy Summit, with all its sanctimony about confronting authoritarian states seemed less a clarion call for the future and more a last blast from the past, from a passing era when America saw itself as the only game in town, as the obvious best choice out there. I do not know what exactly would be the new and better way for America to project power and gain influence in the future but the old ways do not seem to be working and have not kept up with a rapidly evolving international scene. Certainly, one essential part of renewed American power is to try to repair our hollowed out economy and devastated work force at home. Without that domestic focus, everything else seems an illusion. But even if we foreswear foreign crusades, we will still have an important international role to play. It will not be costly debacles like Afghanistan and Iraq (we cannot afford them anymore) nor do I suggest a merely transactional set of relationships divorced from values like some countries pursue. China is not invincible nor is its hegemony inevitable but my sense is we are, still, far too complacent about the challenge we face rushing remorselessly towards us.

*Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice President of MEMRI and was the U.S. Ambassador to Equatorial Guinea from 2009 to 2012.


[1], December 5, 2021.


[3], October 19, 2020.

[4], November 22, 2021.



[7], October 28, 2021.

[8], June 4, 2019.

[9], June 20, 2021.

[10], December 2, 2020.

[11], September 26, 2021.

[12], June 17, 2021.

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