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China in the Maghreb: Threading the Needle of Algeria and Morocco

Steven Jackson

China's strategy in the Maghreb is challenged by regional rivalries, the need to balance economic and political interests, and the Western Sahara conflict. China faces dilemmas in navigating these relationships amidst shifting geopolitical dynamics while maintaining ties with Algeria and Morocco.

Introduction

The Maghreb represents a region of ancient ties and untapped potential in China's foreign policy. For China to improve its connections with the region, it must overcome several obstacles, including distance, the economic gravity of Mediterranean EU states, and particularly the regional rivalries and instability among the Maghreb states, chief among them Algeria and Morocco. China wants to have good relations with these two regional rivals in North Africa for economic and political reasons. In the 2010s, that seemed to be working for all three. In 2020, it became much more difficult. Algeria and Morocco have generally tailored their foreign policy to avoid formally allying with great powers (though both have “leaned” toward superpowers in the past), thereby maintaining strategic flexibility. Their rivalry fuels their interest in acquiring weapons for defense and internal security.

Algeria-China relations

Algeria was one of China’s earliest and closest connections to the Arab world. China recognized the Provisional Revolutionary Government in 1958 and the independent government in 1962.  The legacy of Chinese support for the National Liberation Front (FLN) in its early war for independence is hard to overstate: “Unquestionably, Algerians have never forgotten China’s support during their war of independence….this laid the foundations of long-standing relationship.” Algeria voted in 1971 to restore the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to the Chinese seat in the UN, and relations continued to be good, though the increasing rivalry between China and the Soviet Union after 1963 made many governments in Asia and Africa uncomfortable with having to choose sides between Beijing and Moscow. Algeria bought more arms from the Soviets and leaned toward Moscow on many issues but maintained good relations with China, which also sold it patrol boats in the 1980s. Much of the 1980s and 1990s was a low period for Algeria-China relations, with China focused on economic reforms and trade with advanced and industrialized states and Algeria in its “black decade” of civil war.

The 21st century changed Chinese foreign policy toward Africa, focusing on trade, investment, construction, and, more broadly, image and influence

The 21st century changed Chinese foreign policy toward Africa, focusing on trade, investment, construction, and, more broadly, image and influence. The triennial Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) focused attention on this new policy, and its first major meeting in Beijing in 2000 was attended by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria, one of the four heads of state to come to Beijing; six years later, when the forum returned to Beijing, there were 35 heads of state or government. Once again, Algeria had been an early guest at China’s table. 

In contrast to the conventional wisdom in much of Western media, China is not merely extracting energy from places such as Algeria. In fact, its imports from Algeria are dwarfed by its exports to Algeria: in 2022, China imported $1.9 billion in goods from Algeria (to be sure, mostly refined petroleum and petroleum gas), but it exported almost $7 billion in return. Thus, the trend is clear: China is rapidly gaining share in the Algerian market for a wide variety of products. France is losing its grip on its former colony, as are the other Mediterranean members of the EU, Italy, and Spain. However, as noted, the bilateral merchandise balance of trade is heavily skewed toward China. Figure 1 summarizes the past decade: 

Fig. 1 – Algeria: Imports from Major Partners

Algeria also joined the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2018, and the 1,216 km East-West highway completed in August 2023 was the highlight of the agreement. 

Politically, the ties between Beijing and Algiers remain strong. President and Party Secretary Hu Jintao visited Algeria in 2004, and Algerian President Boutelflika reciprocated in 2006 during the third FOCAC summit, and the two countries agreed to a Strategic Partnership, which was elevated to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership in 2014. China has increased arms sales and transfers to Algeria, a total of $1.2 billion, mostly in the 2010s. This was over one-tenth of Algeria’s arms acquisitions, still fairly small compared to Russian deliveries. 

In summary, China’s relations with Algeria have areas of depth—especially in historic ties—and in the growing market share of Chinese goods in Algeria. But gaps remain: China buys very little from Algeria, and that is likely to continue given the distance and lack of infrastructure. One observer summarized the relationship in 2010: 

Sino-Algerian relations will remain strong and are poised to develop further. Yet China is not alone in its efforts to expand ties with the Maghreb’s preeminent power; long regarded as a country within France’s sphere of influence, the United States, NATO, and Russia are also aggressively courting Algeria. How China maneuvers these dynamics will say a lot about the extent of its influence and interests in Algeria and beyond. 

If China can count Algeria as one of its oldest friends in Africa, Morocco is also very old, having established diplomatic relations with the PRC in November 1958.  

Morocco-China relations
 

If China can count Algeria as one of its oldest friends in Africa, Morocco is also very old, having established diplomatic relations with the PRC in November 1958.  Morocco voted to seat the PRC in the United Nations in 1971. But state visits were rare, and it was not until 2002 that a Moroccan king, Mohammed VI, visited China. That visit, however, led to eight agreements that started a rise in Morocco-China relations. King Mohammed VI returned in 2016, and Beijing and Rabat signed a Strategic Partnership agreement (a lower level of partnership than the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with Algeria). Furthermore, Morocco has backed China at the UN on several key votes, including the 2020 vote to condemn Chinese policies against Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang. Nor has Morocco made any statements contradicting the One China policy.  

An investment agreement for Tangier was signed in 2016, and Morocco joined the BRI in 2017. [1] Morocco waived visa requirements for Chinese tourists; in 2016, 42,000 arrived. Trade ties between Morocco and China have blossomed in the last decade. Figure 2 shows the influx of imports from China:

Fig. 2 –Moroccan Imports from Major Partners 

 

 

Although Spain is still the leading source of Moroccan imports, China and France compete for second place, trending in China’s favor. Morocco imported over $7 billion in Chinese products in 2022.  The Moroccan exports to China, on the other hand, are a low percentage of Moroccan foreign trade, between 1 and 1.5% of its exports, and mostly mineral ores, a total of only $383 million in 2022.  Like Algeria, Morocco has a substantial bilateral merchandise trade imbalance with China. 

The most important factor for Morocco-China economic relations is its potential.  

The most important factor for Morocco-China economic relations is its potential.  Boukhars explains: “The country’s geographic position, relatively good physical infrastructure, and the competitive positioning of some of its existing industry sectors make Morocco an attractive location for Chinese investors. Its generous tax incentives, booming free zones, and numerous free trade agreements are also tantalizing selling points for Chinese manufacturers looking to shift production offshore.”[2]

The broken leg of the triangle: Western Sahara

One major impediment to improving Chinese relations with Morocco remains the poor relations between Algeria and Morocco. From the beginning, the two countries were the political antithesis of the other; monarchical Morocco and socialist Algeria. They fought a brief border war (called “the Sand War”) in 1964.  Relations became much worse in 1975 when Morocco and Mauritania split the former Spanish colony between them. Mauritania gave up its claim in 1979, but Algeria supported the Polisario Front, a guerrilla organization claiming the Sahrawi people’s representation as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). Morocco then fought a long counterinsurgency and pushed the Polisario Front toward the interior. France and the United States quietly backed the Moroccan military during much of the Cold War, seeing the Polisario as a Soviet-backed organization. The UN Security Council brokered a cease-fire agreement in 1991, urging the parties to negotiate a peaceful solution for the Sahwari self-determination through a referendum and not recognize the Moroccan claim. Various states have since recognized the SADR, then de-recognized it, while Morocco has sought to get countries to recognize its claim and proposals. When the Organization of African Unity recognized the SADR in 1984, Morocco withdrew, only rejoining the successor African Union in 2017.  

Diplomacy gets complicated

The long-frozen conflict in the Western Sahara reignited in November 2020, and the diplomatic issues became even more complicated. The COVID-19 pandemic devastated trade and tourism between China and the Maghreb, and much of the optimism of the 2010s was upended. Official relations between Algiers and Rabat were suspended in August 2021. 

Most significantly, the Trump Administration, as part of its “Abraham Accords” initiative to get Arab countries to normalize relations with Israel, recognized Morocco’s claim to Western Sahara in December 2020, upending several decades of American policy on the question. One analyst has argued that this will increase Russian and Chinese influence in Algeria: 

“Unforeseen by Trump, Russia can also cite the US recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara as justification for its annexation in 2014 of Crimea, which is officially part of Ukraine. The US may have improved ties with Morocco but, in doing so, pushed Algeria, another North African behemoth, firmly into a sphere of Russian and Chinese influence and provided Russia justification for its illegal invasions.” 

All of this leaves China in a quandary. Recognizing the Moroccan claim or proposals would go against a long-standing UN position and alienate Algeria but recognizing the SADR could break Sino-Moroccan relations. The unspoken part is that China’s views this through the lens of the Taiwan analogy: if the Sahrawis are entitled to self-determination through election, why not Taiwan? China would vehemently reject the comparison but remains formally in favor of the UN Security Council resolution with a bare minimum of advocacy.  

Israel followed Trump’s recognition of Morocco’s claim in July 2023. The Biden administration has not reversed the recognition. That has raised the stakes in the issue. Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune met with Xi Jinping in July 2023 and issued a joint statement on Western Sahara. Meanwhile, the war in Ukraine has left Algeria with a shortage of Russian weapons, still its leading supplier. Although China and Russia have stood together diplomatically, there is evidence that Beijing is using the opportunity to sell weapons when Moscow cannot.  

Conclusion

China’s goal of maintaining formal relations with all UN member states means that it will continue to have embassies in Algiers and Rabat and is unlikely to do anything that will jeopardize that. But, China now wants to have active, engaged, and profitable relations with all countries to expand its influence into Africa and the Mediterranean, and that is more difficult when the two largest countries in North Africa don’t get along. Algeria was the old, established partner, but Morocco arguably has more potential for Chinese trade and investment. Until 2020, it looked as if China was carefully threading that needle; after 2020, that task became much more challenging. 

The views expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not reflect an official position of the Wilson Center.
 


[1]China’s Foreign Relations 2018, 234. 

[2]Anouar Boukhars. “Sino-Moroccan Relations: A Partnership Seeking to Reach Its Full Potential.” In China and North Africa: Between Economics, Politics, and Security, edited by Adel Abdel Ghafar, 167-198. (London: I. B. Taurus, 2022), 175.

About the Author

Steven Jackson

Steven Jackson

Fellow;
Professor of Political Science, Indiana University of Pennsylvania
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