Strategically located in the center of the Mediterranean, Tunisia’s ancient port of city of Bizerte has bcome the focus of a new Great Game struggle between the North African country’s former colonial ruler, France; its oldest ally, the United States; and an aggressive new arrival, China.
This new struggle between the three powers is focused on who will develop and control the deep-water port, already the nexus of a critical submarine fiber optic network connecting the US/Europe with Asia and the Middle East.
Former US president Barack Obama formalized the country’s strategic importance to the United States when he declared that it was America’s most strategic non-Nato ally during the state visit by Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi on May 21, 2015.
The growing political and economic relations between the United States and Tunisia – backed by US and EU donor pledges in the billions – lasted until then US secretary of state Hillary Clinton shut down the US Embassy in Tunisia and issued a blanket travel ban to US citizens in a knee-jerk reaction following the murder of US Ambassador Christopher J Stevens in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11, 2012.
Tunisia, which was experiencing an economic boom and seeing its hotels filled with executives and CEOs of US companies and multinationals, was deserted overnight as Clinton effectively made the country a no-go zone for Western businesses and a market opportunity for mainland Chinese companies
Tunisia, which was experiencing an economic boom and seeing its hotels filled with executives and CEOs of US companies and multinationals, was deserted overnight as Clinton effectively made the country a no-go zone for Western businesses and a market opportunity for mainland Chinese companies.
The Port of Bizerte is now caught in the middle of an ongoing US/China rivalry, with President Donald Trump reasserting US geopolitical leadership against Chinese President Xi Jinping’s aggressive Belt and Road Initiative, which has seen China expand to strategically sensitive areas such as Djibouti on the Horn of Africa and the Port of Piraeus in Nato member Greece.
Ali Belakhoua, a Tunisian member of Parliament and Bizerte’s highest elected official, told Capitol Intelligence that he stumbled on a group of Chinese managers representing Chinese government companies who told him that they were looking at investing in the Port of Bizerte.
Chinese interest in developing a deep-water port in Bizerte was also confirmed by Dr Kamal Ben Amara, the Ennahda party mayoral candidate for Bizerte in elections to be held in May. He said that Chinese companies have already made a formal offer to develop and modernize the port.
In fact, Capitol Intelligence has seen and reviewed a “letter of intent” from Yuanda Commercial Financial Investment Group to develop a “third generation” port in Bizerte.
Trump administration concerned
The Trump administration is only beginning to be concerned that if it does not move on Bizerte, it will be beaten out by Chinese companies linked to the Chinese government as in Djibouti and Greece.
In fact, Belakhoua and Ben Amara are behind a call for a sister city declaration twinning between the US port city of Baltimore, Maryland, and Bizerte. The aim of the partnership is to gain knowledge of the public-private partnership that developed the Port of Baltimore into America’s leading deep-sea Panamax (Panama Canal-accessible) port.
While the US and China compete to develop the port of Bizerte, France is doing its upmost to make sure that no development happens in Bizerte that could threaten the commercial position of its major Mediterranean hub, the Port of Marseilles.
“The French are sort of like a resentful man who does not want his ex-wife dating anyone else,” said an official from Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund that operates the port of Voltri (Genoa), Italy.
The likely US construction firm that could win the contract to redevelop Bizerte with the financial backing of the US government’s Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) is Bechtel Corporation.
At a recent forum at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), 34-year-old Bechtel CEO Brendan Bechtel said that the largest US construction firm has been pushed off the global top ten list of construction companies by Chinese state-sponsored companies.
However, it is what is under the waters of Bizerte that is also triggering a three-way battle between the United States, China and France.
Bizerte is located at a critical hub of the Europe to Asia fiber optic submarine cable network that handles almost the entirety of Europe to Asia and the Middle East voice and data communications. One of the operators of the submarine cables is Sparkle, a subsidiary of Italy’s TIM (aka Telecom Italia), which has been effectively taken over by France’s Vivendi owner, Vincent Bollore.
The Trump administration has already voiced its concern to the Italian government, requesting guarantees that Italy, and not France, will control any monitoring of the voice and data transiting through the submarine cables.
The concerns of the White House, especially those of national security adviser HR McMaster, will be further heightened if there is a perceived risk that China will attempt to tap into the communications network if it builds up its presence in Bizerte.
A French/US battle is also occurring over the new board of Telecom Italia, with the activist and founder of US hedge fund Elliott Management, Paul Singer, demanding board seats at an upcoming Telecom EGM.
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