Over the past two decades, China has increased its presence in the Maghreb countries – Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia – in terms of trade, investment and economic cooperation. Although it does not have a specific regional policy, China has become active in these countries, focusing on bilateral relations while also working within two frameworks: the Forum on China–Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) and the China–Arab States Cooperation Forum (CASCF), created in 2000and 2004, respectively. Beijing’s political, diplomatic, economic and commercial relations in this region are strongest with Algeria, but ties with Morocco and Tunisia continue to grow steadily.
China is multiplying cooperation initiatives and is positioning itself in these markets. Morocco and Tunisia are not critical to China’s interests, but both seek its investment for their development, in part to offset their dependence on Western powers. Morocco and Tunisia view China as a potential source of means to fix their infrastructure gaps, increase foreign investment, expand trade, and reduce poverty and other socio-economic challenges. This shared interest in developing relations with China coincides with Beijing’s own new approach towards the Arab world.
Since the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013, which most African countries have signed up to, China has reaffirmed its strategic interests in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). At the Ministerial Meeting of the CASCF in 2014, President Xi Jinping declared that ‘the establishment of the China–Arab States Cooperation Forum was a strategic step the two sides took for the long-term development of the China–Arab relations’. China’s 2016 Arab Policy Paper states that China will continue its traditional friendship with the Arab states and promote cooperation at all levels. The paper reiterated the strategic nature of those relations whose objective is to preserve peace and stability.
China’s relations with Morocco and Tunisia cover multiple areas, mainly in the commercial realm. These ties have allowed China to increase its presence not only to implement the BRI, but also to achieve its wider geopolitical objectives. China’s relatively successful engagement in recent decades is due to its shift away from international relations with the developing world based on ideology (the approach it took in 1949–79) to those based primarily on commercial deals (since the economic reforms introduced under Deng Xiaoping), which has made it more attractive to Morocco and Tunisia.
China has made a notable entry in the Maghreb. Although its engagement with Morocco and Tunisia can potentially support the two countries’ economic growth, industrialization and social development – particularly through purchases of raw materials and the construction of infrastructure – there is little evidence that this is happening. Morocco and Tunisia have important geopolitical value in Beijing’s eyes due to their location in Africa, their role in the Arab-Muslim world and their proximity to Europe. Their inclusion in the BRI is significant only insofar as it is a strategic project for China. For their part, the two countries see cooperation with China as an opportunity to reduce Western influence in the context of multi-centric globalization.
Like other outside actors engaged in the Maghreb, China must deal with the instability of existing regimes. Political upheavals may threaten its interests at any time, as occurred in Libya in 2011. China and Libya have yet to restore normal trade relations since the fall of the regime of Muammar Gaddafi. China’s policy of non-interference and neutrality has until now served its interests in the region. Nevertheless, there is a question as to whether it can maintain this stance indefinitely, which amounts to supporting the regimes in place, without being seen negatively by civil society in the region.
Similarly, China has so far managed to maintain relative impartiality on the issue of Western Sahara, thus maintaining the balance in its relations with Algeria and Morocco. However, Western Sahara Resource Watch has alleged that China is participating in the illegal purchase of phosphates and fisheries in the Moroccan-occupied territory of Western Sahara. This could hurt relations with African countries, including Algeria, and confirm suspicions that China is a neo-colonialist power.
As geopolitical and geo-economic factors have become intertwined across the Maghreb since the Arab uprisings, China’s diplomatic approach, which consists of seeking only economic solutions, might prove difficult to implement. With the exception of Algeria, China’s diplomacy has yet to achieve bilateral relations at a real strategic level in the Maghreb, in terms of the political and military dimensions. Despite efforts to develop China’s cultural diplomacy in the region – in the form of exchanges between academics, the media, youth organizations and think-tanks – levels of cultural exchange remain low. As a result, the establishment of China’s strategic relations in the Maghreb is still a distant objective.
‚Expanding Sino-Maghreb Relations: Morocco and Tunisia‘ – Research Paper by Yahia H. Zoubir – Chatham House / The Royal Institute of International Affairs.