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Beijing calling: Assessing China’s growing footprint in North Africa
Adel Abdel Ghafar, Anna L. Jacobs 2019.10.07
As the United States slowly disengages from the Middle East, and as Europe faces internal challenges, a new actor is quietly exerting greater influence across North Africa. China has been strategically ramping up engagement with countries such as Egypt, Algeria, and Morocco, which lie at the intersection of three key regions: the Middle East, Africa, and the Mediterranean. Beijing’s growing footprint in these countries encompasses, but is not limited to, trade, infrastructure development, ports, shipping, financial cooperation, tourism, and manufacturing.
Through this engagement, China is setting up North Africa to play an integral role in connecting Asia, Africa, and Europe — a key aim of President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Previous analyses of the BRI’s role in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region have emphasized that the initiative is difficult to define, with its exact scope subject to much debate. While the current BRI map only officially includes Egypt, BRI Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) have been signed between China and every state in North Africa, demonstrating that it is expanding its foothold in the region.
China is expanding its cooperation with North African countries, not only in the economic and cultural spheres, but also those of diplomacy and defense. Furthermore, it is showcasing a development model that seeks to combine authoritarianism with economic growth — a model that has an eager audience among regimes across the MENA region. As such, China’s growing role in North Africa is likely to have far-reaching economic and geopolitical consequences for countries in the region and around the world.
This policy briefing seeks to analyze China’s growing role in North Africa. It will begin by providing background and context on China’s relations with Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, and Libya. Then, it will provide an overview of the soft and hard power elements of Chinese influence in North Africa, with a particular emphasis on soft power. Lastly, it will offer a set of policy recommendations aimed at North African, European, and U.S. policymakers.
As part of these policy recommendations, this briefing argues that China’s engagement should be cautiously welcomed, but also closely monitored, by governments in North Africa, Europe, and the United States. North African governments should be wary of Chinese “debtbook diplomacy” and surveillance, while Western governments should be wary of the security consequences of an increased Chinese presence in the Mediterranean. Moving forward, China, North Africa, Europe, and the United States should seek win-win modalities of engagement that bring prosperity and stability to the Mediterranean basin.
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