The Debate

China Has Quietly Carved out a Foothold in North Africa

Why the West must respond to growing China-North Africa ties.

By Karim Mezran and Daniel J. Samet for
China Has Quietly Carved out a Foothold in North Africa

Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, shakes hands with Algerian Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia before a meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Sept. 5, 2018.

Credit: Lintao Zhang/Pool Photo via AP

Construction of the impressive Great Mosque of Algiers concluded in April to little international fanfare. Yet the international community should be paying attention. Not only is Algeria’s impressive new structure the largest mosque in Africa and third largest in the world, it was also built by the China State Construction Engineering Corporation at the cost of $1 billion. The mosque’s opening should alert Western observers that in North Africa, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has found a potential foothold.

North Africa is another piece in China’s global strategy deserving of recognition. As others have noted, Chinese engagement, largely through its behemoth Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), is also an expansion of political power masquerading as business dealings. Through predatory loans to developing countries, the PRC increases its political influence — on land and sea and by air and cyberspace — in a challenge to Western hegemony. Its “no strings attached” policy for development aid and military sales has enticed many countries while serving as an alternative to Western engagement. This great power rivalry has come to every corner of the globe.

Although commentaries on China’s engagement with sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere in the Middle East abound, far fewer address Beijing’s penetration into North Africa, also known as the Maghreb. The ones that do tend to focus on economic ties while overlooking other areas. Growing economic cooperation, driven mainly by the BRI, comprises the lion’s share of Sino-North African ties. Yet there’s more at play than business interests. China is on the offensive in the Maghreb, and the West has ignored the threat. It does so at its peril.

Of the Maghreb countries, Algeria has, perhaps, the closest ties to China. The two states agree on ideology — the former has long seen itself as a radical champion of Third World causes, and the latter ostensibly retains its Marxist-Leninist tradition. In 2016, China surpassed France as Algeria’s largest exporter and Beijing enjoys an enormous trade surplus with the North African nation.

In a communiqué to Chinese President Xi Jinping last fall, now ousted Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika spoke warmly of the “strategic partnership” between their countries. Besides economic relations, he may have been referencing security: Algeria is China’s third largest arms buyer globally. As the country enters the post-Bouteflika era, Beijing will be watching closely.

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The PRC has also made notable overtures to Morocco, Algeria’s neighbor and rival. While commemorating the 60th anniversary of diplomatic ties, the Chinese ambassador to Morocco hailed a “new journey” in bilateral relations last October. Sino-Moroccan ties have strengthened in recent years, as trade, tourism, and cultural exchange have spiked. Development projects are one such area, as the Chinese-financed Noor 2 and Noor 3 solar parks near Marrakesh are projected to be the world’s largest. Other initiatives include a $10 billion Chinese-funded industrial city in Tangier, which would give Beijing a technological hub next to one of the continent’s most dynamic ports.

Libya could also play a major role in the PRC’s Maghreb strategy. Beijing had around 36,000 workers — spread across 75 firms and 50 development projects — in the country before the 2011 civil war. Fayez al-Sarraj, the UN backed Libyan prime minister of the Government of National Accord in Tripoli, indicated as recently as last spring that his government would look into renewing these contracts. Although Libya’s future is far from certain, China would welcome strong relations with this oil-rich nation, regardless of who runs Tripoli.

As engagement with Libya has stalled due to the offensive against Tripoli led by rogue general Khalifa Haftar, the Chinese are more and more active in Tunisia. Tunis signed its first BRI agreements last year, perhaps in a nod to future trade deals. Security cooperation is particularly noteworthy. In 2013, Beijing gave an 8 million dinar grant to the Tunisian military, reportedly to bolster its counterterrorism capabilities. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) trumpeted the participation of one of its ships in an international naval parade in Tunisia last year. These signs, though small, are not insignificant.

Global trade helps explain why China is invested in North Africa. The BRI has targeted key ports in other Mediterranean countries, including Italy, Croatia, Slovenia, Spain, Greece, and Israel. Bringing the Maghreb into the fold would further enhance Chinese shipping capabilities in the Mediterranean Basin. The PRC has shown what it will do to undermine the rule of law in international waters through the construction and militarization of illegal man-made islands in the South China Sea. The Mediterranean could be next. If China builds military bases off the coast of Africa and Europe, today’s confrontational position could escalate and pose a threat to Western security.

China has its sight set on a region in which Western security interests are deep. Morocco — one of the United States’ major non-NATO allies — is set for a nearly $5 billion F-16 purchase. French soldiers have played a leading role in the counterinsurgency campaign in the Sahel, while the United States maintains an extensive network of military bases in Africa.

Continued Chinese engagement with the Maghreb will jeopardize Western power-projection capabilities across the continent. According to the U.S. Department of Defense’s annual report on China, the PLA is seeking additional overseas bases (its first opened in Djibouti two years ago). A military installation in the Maghreb could put the Chinese in a position to gain the upper hand in maritime strength over a region whose strategic importance is well documented.

If Chinese-North African ties continue to grow, the American and European relationships with these countries will suffer. The Maghreb may soon serve as a battleground for the Sino-American 5G competition. If Europe gets its act together on a coordinated 5G policy, then it should work in tandem with its American allies on the issue. As the U.S. government has said, countries that let Huawei build their 5G infrastructure can count on reduced American intelligence sharing. There’s no reason to think the Maghreb, which maintains extensive security cooperation with the United States and Europe, will be an exception.

Chinese engagement will not help the Maghreb. Though some may argue otherwise, China’s transactional foreign-policy approach has little to no regard for the wellbeing of other countries. The PRC is fundamentally a mercantilist power that sees all roads leading to the Middle Kingdom. Fragile states in North Africa need partners like the United States and Europe that promote strong, open, and free institutions. China considers its relations with the Maghreb — as with the rest of the world — a zero-sum game in which the strong exploit the weak.

Europe and the United States have great interests in the region given its geopolitical importance — spanning energy, religious extremism, and migration. Yet the transatlantic community seems unaware of, and unprepared for, great power competition in this emerging frontier. The United States and Europe should engage more with the Maghreb, not ignore or abandon it. Both sides of the Atlantic must invest in economic, political, and security ties there, lest the Chinese continue to fill a void left by the West.

Though limited for now, Chinese influence in North Africa may grow remarkably. What China has done so far makes much greater strategic engagement a realistic prospect. If the PRC gets its way, Chinese merchant ships, or even aircraft carriers, could one day own the Mediterranean.

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Karim Mezran is Director and Resident Senior Fellow of the North Africa Initiative at the Atlantic Council. Daniel J. Samet is Program Assistant for Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council. The views expressed here are their own.