Report - China, Europe and the Maghreb: Is China getting closer to our southern neighbours?

Víctor Rico Reche

14 mins - 3 de Febrero de 2023, 07:05

For different reasons, the Maghreb countries, with Morocco and Algeria leading, have been a constant source of news throughout 2022. The escalation of tension between these two countries, the crisis and tragedy at the fence in Melilla, the energy agreements between Algeria and Italy, or the indications of Morocco's involvement in the Pegasus spying scandals and the 'Qatargate' bribery scheme, are just a few examples that have once again put the Spanish press’ full attention on the region. However, there is one topic about which has been written very little and is worth focusing on, and that is the growing presence of China in the region. 

Until now, Chinese investment seemed to have no special interest in a region with a strong European commercial presence. In the last twenty years, China began a process of expansion with investments across the African continent, but it seemed that even in Africa, Beijing's interest was mostly focused on sub-Saharan African countries.

More recently, Beijing has also decidedly increased its commitment to the Middle East, another region geographically and culturally close to the Maghreb. But what is the role of the Asian giant in the southern Mediterranean basin? Has China set its sights on this region of the world? More importantly, if such is the case, should this be of concern to Europe?

A key region for Spain (and Europe)
The Maghreb, the North African region made up of Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya, has historically been a fundamental region for Spain and, by extension, for the rest of Europe. The relationship between the countries on both sides of the Mediterranean basin has profoundly marked the evolution of these two regions. How they manage their future relationships will undoubtedly be key to the stability of both.

Countries on both sides of the Mediterranean maintain close ties in a vast array of areas. From a convulsive shared history, there has been a transition to relative stability that has led to the emergence of mutual dependencies of different natures: economically (Spain being, for example, Morocco’s first trading partner), energy (with Algeria as a strategic supplier of gas for Europe) or management of migratory flows (with Morocco, Algeria, Libya or even Mauritania as key countries in managing migratory flows to the old continent). At the European level, the EU has specific policies that seek rapprochement and greater cooperation with the region. These countries are part of the European Neighbourhood Policy, a strategy through which the EU seeks to strengthen prosperity, stability and security with bordering countries.

[Recibe los análisis de más actualidad en tu correo electrónico o en tu teléfono a través de nuestro canal de Telegram]
Despite these strong ties, the changing global scenario has shown the fragility of these balances and how this has a direct impact on the geopolitics of the old continent. We recently saw how the arrival of Donald Trump to the White House meant a historic recognition by the US of Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara and, almost overnight, how the energy crisis has reconfigured Europe's relations with the gas-exporting countries.

But the clearest example of how a balance shift of this kind can negatively affect Europe is the case of Russia. Russian influence in the countries of the Sahel, with mercenaries deployed in several countries in the region, has also transferred to the information sphere. In a matter of a few years, anti-European propaganda has begun to permeate the local population and translate into governments increasingly aligned with Putin’s regime and against Western Europe.

While it is true that the current foreign policies of Russia and China in the region are very different, it cannot be ruled out that the Chinese strategy could become more persuasive, transforming its economic power into political influence on key issues for Europe as well. In June last year, Beijing convened a conference on peace, good governance, and development with the aim of presenting an alternative approach to the West to address conflicts in the Horn of Africa, which can be seen as a departure from its traditional approach of non-interference in internal affairs of other countries.

And it must not be forgotten that, as some European leaders have been warning for some time, China is 'a systemic rival’, an alternative model that clashes with the European model of political freedom, economic prosperity, and social cohesion.

In the words of the High Representative of the EU, Josep Borrell: ‘When we say that China is our rival, it means that our systems are in rivalry. And the Chinese are trying to explain to the world that their system is much better (...) Our fight is to try to explain that democracy and political freedom is not something that can be exchanged for economic prosperity or social cohesion. Both have to go together. Otherwise, our model will perish, it will not be able to survive.’

China and the Maghreb, getting closer?
Arab-Chinese relations date back to the original Silk Road, when China laid out a trade route connecting the Far East with countries along the Mediterranean Sea. However, for many years, Beijing’s role in the Maghreb has been secondary, generally in the shadow of European influence and far from its determined commitment to other regions of the continent. Despite this, China’s growing presence in the Maghreb should not be underestimated, since its influence there has a greater destabilising potential for Europe than in other parts of the planet.

As has happened with China and other regions of the world, their relations have developed as their economic growth has consolidated the country as a world power. Taking advantage of its tremendous economic capacity, for years, China has been weaving dependency networks with countries throughout the world. The paradigm of this policy is China’s great gamble and megaproject in terms of investment, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), where the region has not been an exception. Although the Maghreb is not geographically among the points that China intends to connect, the multitude of projects that the Asian giant has created under the umbrella of this initiative has ended up seducing all the countries of North Africa, which have also ended up joining the Chinese megaproject.

During the last decade, largely due to this initiative, cooperation mechanisms with the region have been constantly increasing. A multitude of projects are being developed in different areas, with the Maghreb countries on many occasions approaching China through the framework of the League of Arab States, taking advantage of Beijing's interest in the Persian Gulf countries.

In 2019, for example, Tunisia hosted the second China-Arab States BDS Cooperation Forum, a forum that aims to increase the use of the Chinese Beidou satellite navigation system (BDS) in the Arab world, as part of the Space Silk Road and alternative to North American GPS. In fact, this system is already widely used in Algeria and Tunisia for environmental monitoring, agriculture, logistical support or to assist in the event of natural disasters.

In 2021, the China-Arab States Satellite Navigation Plan is signed, laying the foundation for China-Arab States cooperation in space technology, and in December 2022, Xi Jinping attends the First China-Arab States Summit in Saudi Arabia. He visits what the Chinese president calls a 'pioneering trip' to 'open a new era in China's relations with the Arab world.'

Although the Maghreb still does not seem to have the interest in China that the Gulf countries embraced, the truth is that, bilaterally, its presence in the region has also been increasing. China is already the first trading partner of Mauritania, Algeria and Libya, and the third in Morocco and Tunisia.

Algeria and Morocco, the key pieces to the region
In recent years, Beijing has taken a leap in its relations both with Algeria, with whom it established a comprehensive strategic partnership in 2013, and with Morocco, with whom it established a strategic partnership in 2016. These two countries are also in the lead of Chinese arms exports between 2005 and 2021 both in Africa and among the Arab League countries.

With Algeria, China maintains a close relationship at the political level, and China embarked on a  multitude of joint projects with Algeria both in terms of infrastructure and in the field of energy. In November of last year, Algeria officially requested to join the BRICS, the bloc of emerging countries led by the Asian giant and which China welcomed through its Foreign Minister, Wang Yi. A step that, if confirmed, could bring the two countries even closer politically. During the same month, China and Algeria renewed their comprehensive strategic cooperation plan, which for the next five years will pay special attention to the field of economy, energy, agriculture, and science.

Despite not having such consolidated relations as with Algeria, the case of Morocco is also significant. The last year has been marked by a deepening of their relations, mainly commercial. At the beginning of 2022, both countries established an agreement that allowed the Alaouite country to access Chinese financing under the umbrella of the BRI, which ensures increasing Chinese investment in the coming years. Morocco thus became the first North African country to sign a BRI implementation plan with China. On the other hand, in October, a line was inaugurated to transport cargo by train from Chengdu, China to Hamburg, Germany and then by boat to Casablanca, Morocco, making Morocco a key point for its trade route.

The truth is that the presence of Chinese companies is already notable in the country. These companies play a central role in the so-called 'Digital Morocco 2025' plan, with which Morocco endeavours to position itself as a regional digital hub. A clear example of the positioning of some of these companies is that of Huawei, which has established a logistics centre in the port of Tangier Med and is deeply involved in the country’s telecommunications systems. Another example of recent Sino-Moroccan cooperation is the Mohammed VI Tangier Tech City. In July 2022, both countries signed a framework agreement to launch the long-awaited Moroccan project, a 2,000-hectare city that is expected to house 300,000 people and create 100,000 jobs.

Although for Morocco the potential of these relations is yet to be exploited, recent progress is more than remarkable. In the last five years, trade between China and Morocco has grown by 50% and relations between the two countries seem to be better than ever.

Mauritania, Tunisia and Libya, positive relations
With the rest of the Maghreb countries, China also maintains good relations, although on a different scale and with very different interests.

Tunisia maintains a good political relationship with Beijing. In December, the Chinese President met with his Tunisian counterpart, reiterating his support in seeking a path of development 'suitable to their national conditions' and without 'external interference' from other countries. Xi Jinping also promised to promote cooperation with Tunisia in various areas, such as health, infrastructure, high technology, or human resources. In economic matters, the African country reached a record trade deficit with the Asian giant last year. Despite its growth in recent years, in Tunisia the Asian giant is still in third place as a trading partner, behind European countries such as Italy or France.

In the case of Mauritania, relations between the two countries are also positive. In the meeting between Xi Jinping and the President of Mauritania, Mohamed Ould Ghazouani, the Chinese President confirmed the good state of relations between the two countries and reiterated his commitment to enhance this cooperation. Nouakchott's political support on key issues for Beijing, such as issues related to Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang, or its position on human rights, is something that Beijing has valued positively and is key to its political understanding. Economically, China accounts for half of the country’s exports, which shows the importance of Beijing for the African country. A reflection of this good harmony is that in 2019, China pledged to donate €6.3 million in military assistance for the fight against terrorism and, in 2022, decided to cancel part of its debt (some €22.3 million) by signing a memorandum of understanding.

In Libya, despite the country's political instability, China has managed to establish itself as the main trading partner. Its commitment to non-intervention in domestic affairs ensures that it defends its interests regardless of which faction wins the conflict. When the time comes, the Asian giant has the potential to offer the Mediterranean country financial and infrastructure resources for a hypothetical reconstruction of the country, which positions Beijing in a strategic place in the future. It should not be forgotten that for China, Libya is of special interest due to its large oil resources, and the presence of China’s Sinopec is a clear example of this.

Untapped potential
As Mohamed VI stressed during the China-Arab States Summit, except for oil and gas, there is still a significant deficit in terms of Arab exports to China. For the Alaouite monarch, trade between the two regions has not yet lived up to its potential, and in areas such as tourism, the balance remains clearly favourable to the Asian power. The truth is that, despite the growing reluctance of the West to create dependencies of any kind with Beijing, for many countries China continues to be a source of investment that is difficult to reject.

The economic attractiveness of China and its development model based on non-intervention in internal affairs is a very attractive combination for a large number of countries strongly marked by the stigmas (and, of course, consequences) of their colonial past—an ideal model for countries with investment needs but which in turn wish to avoid interference of any kind in their internal politics. Authoritarian governments, with high degrees of corruption or questioned for not respecting human rights, see Chinese investment as an opportunity to obtain economic stimuli without compromising on social or political issues.

Given that China is still in the process of development and seems far from realising its full potential, it is to be expected that while its growth allows it, Beijing will also continue to increase its influence in the Maghreb countries. China seems to be more willing than ever to seduce the countries in the region, and these, in turn, are willing to be seduced. It is too early to tell if the Asian giant will take advantage of this opportunity to also play a more political role in the region, if it will try to attract these states into its sphere of influence, or if it will prefer to first consolidate its influence on other, more important fronts. In any case, due to its proximity, its strategic importance and, above all, due to the good understanding between neighbours of the same sea, it will be better for us in Europe to remain attentive to what is happening in our South.

¿Qué te ha parecido el artículo?