Expanding Sino–Maghreb relations: Morocco and Tunisia

This report from UK think tank Chatham House looks at China’s policy within its Africa and Middle East policies to understand its approach to Morocco and Tunisia.

China’s presence in the Maghreb has increased in recent years, raising concerns among Western powers. China has focused on bilateral relations with these countries while also working within the Forum on China–Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) and the China–Arab States Cooperation Forum (CASCF). However, this engagement has limited strategic value compared to relations China has with Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates. Since the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013, China has shown greater interest in the Maghreb as an entry point to European and African markets. China has pursued commercial relations over political influence in the region. Morocco and Tunisia are still dependent on France, their former colonial power, and the European Union, which exert great political, economic, security and cultural influence over the two countries. The Maghreb countries’ economic relations with China have grown exponentially, with Algeria forming the closest relationship. However, Morocco and Tunisia are keen to attract China’s investment and involvement in major construction and infrastructure projects to boost industrial and economic development. While China’s investments in Morocco and Tunisia remain at a low level, trade relations with both countries have grown steadily. Politically, China’s policy of noninterference in domestic affairs appeals to Maghreb states, which resent Western interference. China’s influence in the Maghreb remains minimal. Its soft power push has struggled to promote advantages of strong relations with China beyond economics. Furthermore, Morocco and Tunisia’s populations have generally scant knowledge about China’s politics and culture. China has tried to address this lack of familiarity through the establishment of Confucius Institutes and other cultural activities. However, language and cultural barriers still impede the development of close relations, compared to those China has with other countries in Africa.

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