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Samir Bennis

The Morocco-China partnership and its impact on Western Sahara

China is Morocco’s third economic partner

Date of publication: 19 May, 2016

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Comment: Rabat's strengthening links with China have drawn attention to the strategic importance of Gulf oil for Beijing, and its implications for the geopolitical landscape, says Samir Bennis

After visiting Russia in March, Morocco's King Mohammed VI went to China last week; his second trip to the country, having first visited in 2012.

The timing of the visit makes it particularly important. It comes following two months of tension between Morocco and the Secretariat of the United Nations, following Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's controversial statement describing Morocco's presence in the Western Sahara as "occupation".

It also comes a few days after the Security Council renewed the mandate of the UN mission in the territory known as MINURSO, and against the backdrop of Morocco's disappointment with the United States as a result of its unsupportive stance towards Morocco in the Security Council.

The timing of the visit has given rise to a great deal of optimism and enthusiasm in Moroccan public opinion and among observers. There is a general consensus among analysts that the visit came at the right time, and will help Morocco strengthen its leading role in South-South cooperation.

They also suggest the visit will lay the grounds for a real win-win economic partnership with China, and is likely to enable Morocco to achieve certain political gains with regards to Beijing's position on Western Sahara.

Unlike countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom, China does not advocate the establishment of micro-states based on the narrow principle of self-determination. Influenced by its history - the foreign occupation of parts of its territory such as Hong Kong and Macau, in addition to its own problems with separatism both in Taiwan and Tibet - China is one of the few influential countries that does not support the concept of self-determination as necessarily leading to independence.

However, in international relations, the position adopted by states is determined not only by their political doctrine, but also, and most importantly, their economic interests.

China and Algeria

An accurate comparison of the value of trade exchanges between Morocco and China versus that of Algeria and China shows that Morocco still has a long way to go before garnering China's political support in the foreseeable future.

The value of trade exchanges between Morocco and China does not exceed $2.3 billion. The value of trade between China and Algeria, as of 2013, reached $8.6 billion according to the latest available data.

In addition, while China is Morocco's third-largest economic partner, it has been Algeria's primary supplier since 2013. Algeria is also China's most important market in the Maghreb, accounting for 41 percent of its trade with the region. In the same vein, China has been awarded contracts in the past few years worth more than $20 billion to build several structural projects in Algeria.

Accordingly, China's interests with Algeria exceed its interests with Morocco. It is difficult therefore, to imagine that China would adopt a position openly in favour of Morocco just because it has signed several agreements with Rabat.

The Gulf States are not only a market for Chinese goods, but also a fundamental source of energy

Supporting this claim are the strong commercial ties between China and other countries that are hostile to Morocco - particularly South Africa, Nigeria and Angola. China is South Africa's largest economic partner, with the value of exchanges between the two countries amounting to $20 billion.

China is also Angola's main economic partner, with a volume of trade worth $36 billion, according to the latest available statistics. Beijing is also Nigeria's number one supplier, with $14.9 billion in bilateral trade in 2015.

Rabat gets the better deal

There is, however, one essential element that may play in favour of Morocco and that gives great significance to Chinese-Moroccan rapprochement, as well as the regional alliances that Morocco has recently begun to forge. This factor is the strategic alliance between Morocco and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

Read more: Comment - Morocco's strategic alliance with the Gulf insulates their monarchies

Despite the high value of trade between China and Morocco's adversaries, it does not match the value of trade between Beijing and the GCC. While Algeria, Nigeria, and Angola are considered, to some extent, among the suppliers for the Chinese market with oil, these countries are, in addition to South Africa, considered primarily a market for Chinese goods and investments - and not a key source of energy.

Conversely, the Gulf States are not only a market for Chinese goods, but also a fundamental source of energy for Beijing. Since China has established itself among the world's greatest economic powers, the Gulf states have played a pivotal role in supplying it with the essential energy to fuel its economic growth.

While China's oil imports from Algeria, Nigeria and Angola can be seen as complementary (Algeria's exports did not exceed 37,000 barrels per day in 2013), imports from Gulf countries are an irreplaceable pillar for the Chinese economy to succeed in meeting its increasing energy demands. At present, China's oil imports from the GCC account for 43 percent of its total imports. Among the Gulf states, Saudi Arabia is China's main supplier, accounting for 17 percent of Chinese imports of oil.

Rapprochement between Rabat and Beijing should therefore, be understood as an extension of the strategic alliance between Morocco and its Gulf allies

In the same context, while the value of trade between China and the four African countries mentioned above does not exceed $70 billion, the value of trade exchange between Beijing and the GCC exceeds $250 billion, and is expected to reach $350bn by 2020.

In addition, the added value of the GCC for China is the ability of these countries to pump huge investments into the Chinese economy across several sectors, from the petrochemical industries to tourism and real estate.

Based on this, and although the economic partnership between Morocco and China does not enable Rabat to garner Beijing's clear support regarding Western Sahara, the strategic importance of Gulf oil for China, coupled with the strength of relations between Morocco and the GCC, may play in Morocco's favour - and lead China to gradually adopt positions that are in line with Rabat's desires.

With this in mind, the Moroccan monarch's decision to announce his visit to China during the first Morocco-GCC summit, held in April in Riyadh, was not a coincidence. It was a message from Morocco and its Gulf allies - that the Morocco-China partnership comes as part of the wider relationship partnership between Beijing and the Gulf states.

Rapprochement between Rabat and Beijing should therefore be understood as an extension of the strategic alliance between Morocco and its Gulf allies.

It is unlikely that Beijing would sacrifice its commercial relations with the countries that support the Polisario for the sake of Morocco

A cautious approach is necessary, and one should avoid suggesting that a strengthened economic partnership between Morocco and China will in itself push Beijing to adopt a position that favours Morocco in Western Sahara.

If Morocco were to rely on the volume of trade with China, it is unlikely that Beijing would sacrifice its commercial relations with the countries that support the Polisario for the sake of Morocco.

Nevertheless, the unity of destiny between Morocco and the Gulf states and these countries' importance within the Chinese economy makes China's support to Morocco likely to develop in the medium and long term.

However, even in the event that China were to take a political position favorable to Morocco, this be unlikely to stretch beyond maintaining the status quo.


Samir Bennis is a political analyst. He received a Ph.D. in international relations from the University of Provence in France and his research areas include relations between Morocco and Spain and between the Muslim world and the West, as well as the global politics of oil. 

He has published more than 150 articles in Arabic, French, English and Spanish, and authored
Les Relations Politiques, Economiques et Culturelles Entre le Maroc et l’Espagne: 1956-2005, which was published in French in 2008. He is the co-founder of Morocco World News and lives in New York. Follow him on Twitter: @SamirBennis

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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