Beijing strengthens its presence in the Maghreb


Upon welcoming Prime Minister Saad Eddine El-Othmani in Beijing on September five, 2018, to commemorate the 70th anniversary of establishing relations in between China and Morocco, President Xi Jinping stressed that his nation “considers Morocco as an vital companion in developing the Belt and Road Initiative [BRI]” – the name by which the Chinese government calls its “new silk roads” project.

A handful of months later, in February 2019, the tourist town of Chefchaouen, in northern Morocco, was adorned with 1,500 red lanterns to celebrate the Chinese Spring Festival. That was anything unheard of. The regional press, which extensively reported on the occasion, did not hesitate to emphasize the gradual strengthening of the Chinese presence in Central Maghreb and, much more commonly, in North Africa.

While the projects are nonetheless modest, nations such as Egypt, Algeria and Morocco have turn into element of China’s rising engagement in this strategic area, situated at the crossroads in between the Middle East, Africa, Southern Europe and the Mediterranean. Important sectors in this developing footprint incorporate trade, infrastructure improvement, port building, as effectively as the launch of new maritime hyperlinks, economic cooperation, tourism and manufacturing.

To distinguish itself from its Western competitors, Beijing relies on two significant arguments. 1st, the official policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of the nations it is dealing with. This, for China, is an desirable option to the normative engagement that typically characterizes cooperation with the United States and the European Union Rabat, Tunis or Cairo from time to time discover the association treaties signed with the Union to be as well restrictive 1. The second argument is the pragmatism and opportunism of Chinese politics. Due to the fact choice-creating is element of a very hierarchical chain of command, investment selections can be rapid, even though in the West, validation typically requires a extended time. In addition, China boasts an unmatched capacity to present low cost financing and labor for infrastructure improvement – an location in which the United States and Europe can not compete. This was the case, for instance, for the duration of the building of numerous thousand properties in Algeria in between 2002 and 2010. From January 2005 to June 2016, China won 29 significant contracts worth $22.22 billion.two

China’s connection with the nations of North Africa, in particular Algeria and Egypt, started for the duration of the anticolonial struggle, stemming from an ideological assistance for national liberation movements. Notably, China was the initially non-Arab nation to recognize the Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic (PGAR, 1958-1962) and offered a great deal-necessary diplomatic assistance to the independence war led by the National Liberation Front (NLF, 1954-1962). Gamal Abdel Nasser was the initially Arab and African leader to recognize the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1956. Though China did not play as vital a function as the Soviet Union, the PRC was a robust supporter of the Egyptian president for the duration of his several confrontations and arm-wrestling with the West.

But it was at the starting of the millennium that China started to turn its consideration toward this area for financial motives. The BRI is a symbol of this shift. Though South Asia has so far received the majority of BRI projects, the initiative’s expansion west, toward Europe and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) area, is effectively underway. Beijing established a Complete Strategic Partnership (CSP) with Algeria, as effectively as with Egypt in 2014, and a Strategic Partnership (SP) with Morocco in 2016. On the other hand, it is with Egypt that trade is most created, with Chinese sales exceeding $eight billion a year. Capital flows also continue to raise. In November 2018, Secretary Common of the Union of Arab Banks Wissam Fattouh noted that investments had reached $15 billion.three They are officially intended to finance true estate and infrastructure projects for the new administrative capital northeast of Cairo, a petrochemical plant, a doable water therapy and storage station and a coal-fired energy station.

Algeria is one particular of Beijing’s oldest and most vital financial partners in the area. China is interested in the country’s vast oil and gas reserves. Chinese imports to this power-producer are the highest in the Maghreb, recorded at $7.85 billion in 2018. China became Algeria’s prime trade companion in 2013, surpassing France.  In Algeria, Chinese businesses are mainly interested in the building, housing, and power sectors. Main building projects, such as the Algiers Opera Property, the Sheraton Hotel, the Fantastic Mosque of Algiers and the East-West Highway, mark the landscape. These activities have brought in thousands of workers and merchants who have established a “Chinatown” in the district of Boushaki, in the eastern suburbs of Algiers. On numerous occasions, fights broke out with locals, especially in the summer season of 2009 and in the summer season of 2016. This presence remains a recurring result in of tension.four

Due to the fact King Mohammed VI visited China in 2016, investment and trade have also enhanced in Morocco. The Tangiers Med Port Complicated in the North has turn into the biggest container port in Africa, ahead of rivals Port Stated (Egypt) and Durban (South Africa). Chinese businesses, such as telecommunications giant Huawei, program to establish regional logistical headquarters there. On the 10th anniversary of the port’s opening, Rabat announced a $10 billion investment project, named Mohammed VI Tangiers Tech City, which is set to host two hundred factories in the subsequent ten years, creating Morocco Africa’s biggest Chinese industrial platform.five

China is also searching for to deepen its trade with Tunisia and Libya. In 2018, it signed BRI MoUs with these two nations.six With Tunisia, Chinese imports have reached an annual typical of $1.85 billion due to the fact 2016, ranking third behind France and Italy. Immediately after the outbreak of the civil war in Libya in 2011, Beijing had to evacuate its citizens and drop vital projects and investments. On the other hand, its Libyan oil purchases have much more than doubled due to the fact 2017. The Chinese government has repeatedly stated that it is prepared to participate in the reconstruction work when peace is restored.7

China has also invested in maritime projects, by means of the China Ocean Shipping Firm (COSC), in the ports of Tangiers, Cherchell (Algeria), Port Stated and Alexandria, Piraeus (Greece), as effectively as in ports in Israel, Turkey and Italy. The nation also specializes in laying submarine cables, a essential element of its telecommunication improvement method. Huawei Marine Networks created and installed the “Hannibal” cable linking Tunisia to Italy in 2009, as effectively as a different cable linking Libya to Greece in 2010. This intense activity raises a quantity of issues in Europe, exactly where there are fears that Beijing requires benefit of these projects for intelligence gathering. Issues enhanced when Sri Lankan officials claimed that the Chinese insisted on an intelligence-gathering element that would monitor all visitors via the port of Hambantota, which it took complete handle of in 2017, in exchange for relieving the nation from a debt amounting to $1.two billion.eight

China is also searching for to raise its influence in the area via a stronger cultural engagement. As element of an MoU signed in between the King of Morocco and President Xi in 2016, a China Cultural Center was inaugurated in Rabat in December 2018. Meanwhile, Egypt is dwelling to two Confucius Institutes, situated at Cairo University and the Suez Canal University, as effectively as to a Chinese cultural center in the capital. In Tunisia, the initially Confucius Institute opened in November 2018. For the duration of the 2018 Beijing Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), the Chinese government also decided to raise the quantity of scholarships awarded to African students, such as these from the North of the continent, to allow them to pursue larger education in China – promising 50,000 government scholarships and a different 50,000 instruction grants. For African students, China is now the second location following France their quantity went from two,000 in 2003 to almost 50,000 in 2015, a 25-fold raise.

To make its influence, Beijing has established regional organizations such as the FOCAC and the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum (CASCF), even although it at the moment offers with every single North African nation via a largely bilateral framework. This diplomatic engagement illustrates the principle of xinxing daguo guanxi, or “a new sort of significant energy relations,” whereby China seeks to engage with much less vital nations when they have been grouped into significant regional forums.9 Only then are they regarded to be strong sufficient for higher-level cooperation.

As for military operations, China’s initially important military action in the area took location in Libya in 2011, when the People’s Liberation Army (PLN) helped to evacuate thousands of Chinese workers from the nation prior to NATO airstrikes started. Subsequently, in 2015, a joint Chinese-Russian military exercising took location in the Mediterranean and, in 2017, China opened its initially overseas military base in Djibouti, placing the eastern Mediterranean coast inside attain of its navy and air force. In January 2018, two warships from the 27th Chinese naval escort stopped by Algiers for a 4-day “friendly visit” as element of a 4-month tour.

In just two decades, China has strengthened its position in North Africa. On the other hand, it is nonetheless as well early to attain a definitive conclusion about the implications of this engagement. Nonetheless it is vital to evaluate possible extended-term impacts on these nations and their finances, in particular if these funded projects are not integral to these countries’ improvement techniques. Similarly, strategic investments, in particular in ports, will continue to fuel issues of Western nations, which are effectively conscious that such infrastructure can simply be employed for safety purposes.



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