The power of the United States is slipping, heralding fresh challenges and new opportunities for Morocco’s future.
The last decade has seen the US challenged in the most meaningful way since the Cold War. It is challenged in the Pacific, where China has militarized the South China Sea, contesting American positions and allies in the Philippines, Taiwan, and Japan. It is challenged in Europe, where NATO struggles to counter the ever-more daring efforts of Russia in Ukraine and the Baltic, with the EU considering taking its defense into its own hands.
It is also challenged in the Middle East, where the US has begun to withdraw from its Bush-era role as a “global policeman,” slowly moving out of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, now contested in the region by a more active Russian and Turkish presence.
Strong US-Morocco ties
On the surface, the impact of this global shift does not seem to affect Morocco. After all, the US is not retreating from the country — in fact, it is quite the opposite. The close relationship between the two nations, dating back as far as 1787, shows no sign of weakening in recent years. Since 9/11, Morocco has been “a central focus of the US’s updated foreign policy” in their efforts to counter “perceived threats of extremist ideology,” as Francesca Ractliffe wrote in 2018.
Counter-terrorism efforts within this new foreign policy have led the US-Morocco relationship to grow rather than recede. Over the last two decades, the kingdom has increased cooperation with the US in the military and intelligence sectors, receiving $2.7 billion worth of military equipment from the US — which has surpassed France as Morocco’s primary arms supplier.
Morocco also secured a deal in 2014 to provide American funding and assistance to Moroccan law enforcement, to help combat nearby threats in North Africa. Economic ties go beyond security efforts, however, with NAFTA deals and USAID to Moroccan education bringing more capital into the country’s economy.
Evidently, the United States’ influence is not slipping in Morocco. But looking at North Africa and the Mediterranean, the consequences of a globally receding US on Morocco’s future become clear.
A receding US has brought a rising China into the regional game.
Chinese footprints in North Africa
Nowhere in North Africa is China’s presence more clear than in Algeria. China became Algeria’s largest exporter in 2016, surpassing France. Since then, it has made considerable investments in the country. Algeria is now the third-largest buyer of Chinese arms, and recently worked with the Asian superpower to build the massive Great Mosque of Algiers, the third-largest in the world. The China State Construction Engineering Corporation carried out the construction for a price tag of over $1 billion.
This is not to say that Chinese investment is limited to Algeria — the nation’s interest in Morocco’s economy has also increased. The declaration of a “new journey” in China-Morocco relations in 2018 has resulted in a spike in tourism and trade. The vision has also resulted in large economic investments, such as with the developing Noor-2 and Noor-3 solar parks in Ouarzazate, and a proposed tech city near Tangier.
Political vs economic policy: China’s investment in Algeria and Morocco
As with China’s other Belt and Road partners, this increased trade and investment in North Africa creates a new market for Chinese goods, with a trade deficit in China’s favor. Its approach largely ignores politics in favor of economic expansion. However, politics do play their part. While China is investing in both Morocco and Algeria, it seems to have a clear political favorite between the two.
The ideological similarities between Algeria, long an advocate of third-world revolutions, and the Communist Party of China, with its own Marxist principles, have led to warm ties between the two nations and the aforementioned arms sales. Former Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika spoke of this “strategic partnership” in 2018, one that has only strengthened since then. It is still unclear whether China’s approach in North Africa will lead the economic giant to support Algeria against Morocco.
With economic investment in both nations, this strategy seems unlikely. Despite their political differences, both Algeria and Morocco are courting Chinese investment, and China seems eager to keep a foothold in both markets.
This does not mean Morocco is exempt from the new political games at play in the Mediterranean and Africa. East and West are actively fighting for political and economic influence in Morocco. Even if Morocco does not choose a side in this fight, it will have to balance these powerful competing interests.
The great game
Recent events in Africa and the Mediterranean Basin clarify the need for balance. China has targeted important ports in Italy, Croatia, Spain, and Greece to expand its shipping power to Europe’s doorstep. Gaining economic dominance in North Africa is an obvious next step for China to improve its Mediterranean position.
The US, however, will likely not let its valuable partnership and deep investments with Morocco diminish easily. Morocco and North Africa are important parts of the EU and NATO strategies as well, ones they will not easily abandon. The EU and its members have heavily invested in tourism, diplomacy, and economic development with Morocco, particularly at the critical port of Tangier.
The EU has also closely worked with Morocco to stabilize the flow of refugees into the European continent. As for France, the UK, and the US, a friendly Morocco on the Strait of Gibraltar aids their access to Mediterranean shipping.
China already seeks to challenge these nations militarily in North Africa, as its next step in both Africa and the Mediterranean. As of now, China only has one military base on the African continent, in Djibouti, near the important and volatile Bab El-Mandeb Strait. It is seeking to build more, however, particularly in Algeria.
This would pose a challenge to the extensive network of US military bases in North and Central Africa. Prominence in North Africa, in particular, is critical for the ability of the US and Western Europe to project power into North and sub-Saharan Africa. Morocco is especially important in this view due to its position at the Strait of Gibraltar.
With such a wide range of conflicting economic and military interests, a collision course between East and West in North Africa seems likely. What form this will take is not clear. It could remain as a mainly economic competition, with China and the West grappling for markets. Yet it could also go much further. With its involvement in neighboring Algeria, it seems likely that Morocco will become part of China’s military strategy in North Africa.
If Western powers retreat in Morocco, China may try to replace them as a primary arms supplier and military partner. However, it is more likely that the West would try to preserve and expand its strategic position in Morocco in the face of new regional threats and uncertainty. In that case, China could increase its own efforts to align Morocco, or try to play the more closely aligned Algeria against the kingdom and its Western foothold.
A regional tightrope
From the Moroccan perspective, China and the West colliding in Mediterranean waters means rough seas in the near future. However, the last decade has shown that this challenging environment can also be lucrative. China has invested billions of dollars into North Africa during this time, while the US and EU have likewise invested billions in investment, aid, and arms to Morocco. Playing the new regional game right could lead to ever more investment in the country from both sides.
As of now, this seems to be the course Morocco will opt for. Maintaining close relations with all the powers on its doorstep, Morocco seems ready for the shaky regional future.
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