A plume of smoke rises from an air strike behind a tank and trucks that belong to forces loyal to Libya's Government of National Accord, during clashes in Wadi Rabie, 30km south of the capital Tripoli, on April 12, 2019. While the civil war put a damper on much of China’s investment activities in Libya, Beijing is eager to assist with post-conflict infrastructure development. Photo: AFP / Mahmud Turkia

China has been increasing its footprint in North Africa over the past decade. While Europe remains North Africa’s primary economic partner, China has taken advantage of the decreasing influence of the West in the region.

Indeed, even the Tunisian president’s recent seizure of power from the country’s parliament and prime minister elicited very little reaction from Europe. China’s avowed non-interventionist approach toward local politics – as opposed to an American and European emphasis on human rights and good governance – makes it an appealing partner for North African leaders.

Meanwhile, the region’s geostrategic importance, at the crossroads of Africa, the Middle East and the southern Mediterranean, make it a crucial area for China’s expansionist agenda. None of this, however, offers much benefit to the people who actually populate the region.

Beijing is pursuing a development model in the region that leaders who are increasingly less interested in a path of Western-style democracy find appealing – a model that marries economic growth with authoritarianism. Yet even that economic benefit might not truly filter down.

In addition, Chinese investment has been criticized in other regions for creating a form of debt dependency that North African countries, many of which are already plagued with high levels of debt, cannot afford.

Nowhere is China’s interest in North Africa clearer than through its flagship Belt and Road Initiative. China has signed BRI agreements with every North African state. The BRI spans a variety of arenas, including infrastructure development, technical assistance, cultural partnerships and trade facilitation. China is also keen to secure access to Algerian and Libyan oil and gas. 

China became Algeria’s top trading partner in 2013, overtaking France. However, analysts have noted that there has been little benefit from the increasing Chinese interest, with Algeria funding most development projects and China transferring little technology or expertise. 

Elsewhere, both Morocco and Tunisia have increased their trade with China, which now ranks third in both countries, behind France and Spain.

At the outset of the Libyan uprising in 2011, China had a large footprint in the country, operating around 75 businesses, 50 infrastructure projects using more than 36,000 Chinese workers, and holding contracts worth around US$20 billion. While the civil war put a damper on much of China’s investment activities, Beijing is eager to assist with post-conflict infrastructure development. 

While China’s BRI investments have been large, the bulk of its interest in the region in fact has been on the soft-power side.

Diplomatically, North African states benefit from two regional forums – the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum founded in 2004 and the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation founded in 2006. Each of these bodies allows North African officials to engage in regular, high-level dialogue with Chinese officials.

Additionally, China has had a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with Algeria since 2014 and a Strategic Partnership with Morocco since 2016.

Through these partnerships, China has been able to “soft balance” against the West and Russia.

In the education arena, North Africa is home to four Confucius Institutes – three in Morocco and one in Tunisia, as well as a Confucius Classroom in the latter. The Institutes are designed to promote Chinese language and culture, but have been criticized for promoting Chinese propaganda and impinging on academic freedom. 

Tourism is another important tool of Chinese soft power. Both Morocco and Tunisia have relaxed visa restrictions on Chinese tourists over the past several years, leading to an increase in visits. In Tunisia, the number of Chinese tourists jumped from 8,000 in 2016 to 20,000 in 2017. Morocco saw 43,000 Chinese tourists in 2016, and five times that number in 2019.

While soft power remains China’s predominant area of intervention in the region, there are several notable hard-power projects as well. China’s investment in undersea cables (such as the Hannibal cable between Tunisia and Italy and the cable between Libya and Greece) has provided critical telecommunications infrastructure to the region. 

But there is concern that Chinese technology could be used as a back door into the security services and government operations of North African states. In some cases, the use of the Chinese company Huawei’s surveillance technology is not a secret. Algeria has reportedly deployed Huawei’s surveillance technology.

North Africa, and Algeria in particular, is also a major destination for Chinese arms exports. Between 2010 and 2020, Algeria alone made up almost 30% of Chinese arms sales to Africa. While Morocco still buys the bulk of its weapons from the US, China is expanding its military-to-military cooperation.

Beijing has also been tightening relations with Tunisia. After a meeting between the Chinese and Tunisian defense ministers in 2019, the two countries said they wanted to strengthen military cooperation. On that score, Beijing will be gratified by Washington’s muted response to President Kais Saied’s imposition of emergency rule.

But what do the people of North Africa actually gain from such engagement with Beijing?

China certainly is not in the business of promoting or even welcoming the social and political reforms needed to bring about stability and long-term economic growth that will improve the daily lives of North Africans. And China’s investments do not bring many local jobs with them, as its companies usually prefer to bring in Chinese workers.

Tourism may be the only bright point – though how long it might take to recover after the Covid-19 pandemic recedes is impossible to determine just yet.

In all, the benefits of China’s engagement with North Africa mostly accrues to Beijing’s side of the ledger. 

The region might be better served from a recommitment by the US and Europe, which might offer palpable inducements of development aid linked to reforms. But with Western governments focused on their own domestic spending plans and Covid-19 recovery, it is more likely that continuing Chinese funds and outreach will further entrench Beijing’s influence in the region for the foreseeable future.

This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.

Sarah Yerkes

Sarah Yerkes is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where she focuses on Tunisia’s political, economic and security developments, as well as on state-society relations in the Middle East and North Africa. She previously worked at the US State and Defense departments.