The United States-China rivalry is truly culminating into a full-blown Cold War and Washington isn’t letting Beijing establish its interests in any part of the world. Till now, the US was beating back Chinese influence in South Asia and Southeast Asia, but now the US has also started targeting China’s North African Safari. As per latest reports, the US has signed two 10-year military deals in the Maghreb region in a bid to contain the growing China’s growing influence and military ambitions.
First, the US Defense Secretary Mark Esper signed a 10-year military cooperation agreement with Tunisia on Wednesday last week and then on Friday, he signed another such military accord with Morocco, another non-NATO US ally in the region. Both these countries have been the hotbeds of Chinese influence in the region. The US defence deals are therefore directly targeted at the paper dragon and the Chinese PLA’s North African dreams.
In fact, Esper also visited Algeria, another North African country with considerable Chinese influence. No deals are known to have been signed in Algeria, but the US Defense Secretary reportedly discussed expansion of security cooperation and security issues in the Sahel region.
Esper’s visit to the three crucial North African countries seems like a major American manoeuvre to counterbalance China’s growing foothold in the region. China has been eyeing all the three countries in the region- Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. Beijing has closest ties with Algeria amongst Maghreb countries.
Algeria and China share ideological trappings. While Algeria, a former French colony, envisages itself as the champion of Third World causes, China retains its seemingly Marxist-Leninist characteristics. China has come so close to Algeria that the paper dragon has been able to surpass France as Algeria’s largest exporter. Today, China enjoys a sizeable trade surplus over Algeria.
Chinese military ambitions in Algeria have also been growing significantly, and Algeria is the third-largest buyer of Chinese arms in the world.
At the same time, Beijing has also been trying to gobble up Morocco. Some of China’s biggest investments in the African Continent are parked in this country. In 2018, the Chinese Ambassador to Morocco hailed a “new journey” on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of diplomatic ties between the two countries.
The “new journey” involves Chinese-financed Noor 2 and Noor 3 solar parks near Marrakesh, which are billed as the world’s largest solar parks. Other ambitious Chinese initiatives include a $10 billion in Tangier, which would allow the Dragon to build a technological hub in close proximity to one of Africa’s major ports.
On the other hand, Chinese investments in Tunisia have also been growing at a breakneck speed ever since the Libyan war started creating hurdles for Beijing in the war-torn Libya. Tunis signed the first of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) agreements in 2018. It is in Tunisia where China has been trying to augment security cooperation. In 2013 itself, China had extended an eight million-dinar (2.9 million US Dollars) grant to the Tunisian military.
In October 2018, the Chinese guided-missile frigate Wuhu (Hull 539) also participated in the first International Naval Parade hosted by the Tunisian Navy in the Gulf of Tunis to mark the 60th anniversary of the Tunisian Navy. The participation of the Chinese PLA warship underlined Beijing’s ambitions to gain a military foothold on Tunisia.
Chinese investments in North Africa have a timid military ambition which makes the paper dragon’s presence in the region all the more intolerable for the United States. Currently, China has just one military base in Africa, in Djibouti, located close to the volatile and strategically important Bab El-Mandeb Strait. But Beijing is looking to build more bases, and its investments in both Algeria and Tunisia point out how China is planning to use the Maghreb region for expanding its military presence in the African Continent.
China was about to gobble up North Africa through predatory investments and ultimately use it for making its military presence felt. However, the US has interdicted China with two major defence deals in the region, along with signs of improving US-Algeria security cooperation. China was comfortably riding the North African Safari, but Washington has given a deathly blow to China by wresting Morocco and Tunisia from it.