What Impact of Morocco-China Strategic Partnership on Western Sahara?

New York – Following his visit to Russia in March, King Mohammed VI visited China on May 11 and 12, his second visit to the country, his first having been in 2012.  During the visit, he and Xi Jinping, China’s head of state, signed a strategic partnership between the two countries, and chaired the signing of 15 agreements and memoranda of understanding aimed at strengthening their economic partnership and their cooperation in various fields.

Context of King Mohammed VI’s Visit to China

What gives great importance to the Moroccan monarch’s visit is its timing. It comes after 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 an “occupation.” It also is only 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 visit is also significant in light of a new orientation in Moroccan diplomacy in recent years, marked by Rabat’s resolve to diversify its economic and political partnerships with various influential countries, including Russia, China, and India.

The timing of the visit has given rise to a great deal of optimism and enthusiasm in Moroccan public opinion and among observers. The common denominator of observers’ analyses is that the visit came at the right time, and will help Morocco strengthen its leading role in South-South cooperation. Analysts believe that the visit will also lay the groundwork for a real win-win economic partnership with China, that is likely to enable Morocco to achieve some political gains with regards to Beijing’s position on the 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. Stemming from its history with 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. It can be argued that this political doctrine is one of the main reasons behind China’s positive neutrality on the Western Sahara dispute.

However, in international relations, what determines the positions of states is not only their political doctrine, but also, and most importantly, their economic interests. This highlights the need to analyze the partnership between Morocco and China with caution, put it in its regional and international context, and avoid any rush to conclude that this partnership will push China toward open support of Morocco’s position on the territorial dispute.

Trade Between Morocco and China Below Trade Between China and Algeria

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

While 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, had reached $8.6 billion according to the latest available data.

In addition, while China is Morocco’s third economic partner after the European Union and the United States, it has become, since 2013, Algeria’s first supplier, replacing France. Algeria is also the most important market for China in the Maghreb, accounting for 41% of its trade with the region. In the same vein, in the past few years China was awarded contracts worth over $20 billion to build several structural projects in Algeria, such as the east-west highway, the Grand Mosque of Algiers, and the new building of the Algerian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Accordingly, if one speaks in terms of interests, China’s interests with Algeria exceed its interests with Morocco. Hence, it is difficult to imagine that China would adopt a position openly in favor of Morocco just because it has signed several agreements with Rabat. 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 African’s first economic partner, with the value of exchanges between the two countries amounts to $20 billion. China is also Angola’s first economic partner, with a volume of trade worth $36 billion, according to the latest available statistics. Beijing is also Nigeria’s first supplier. The value of trade between the two countries reached $ 14.9 billion in 2015.

GCC-Morocco Alliance Plays in Favor of Rabat in its Relations with Beijing

There is a very important factor that will play out in favor of Morocco and will give great significance to a Chinese-Moroccan rapprochement, as well as the regional alliances that Morocco has begun to forge lately. This factor is the strategic alliance between Morocco and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which was given a new impetus in April. What gives meaning to this Chinese-Moroccan partnership is the strength of economic relations between the GCC and China and the unique importance these countries represent for the Chinese economy.

Despite the high value of trade between China and Morocco’s adversaries – Algeria and South Africa, Nigeria, and Angola – it does not match the value of trade between Beijing and the Gulf states. Despite the fact that 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. Since China has established itself among the world’s greatest economic powers, the Gulf States have played a pivotal role in supplying the Chinese market with the essential energy to fuel its economy’s growth.

While China’s oil imports from Algeria, Nigeria, and Angola can be considered 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’s 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.

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 exchanges between Beijing and the GCC exceeds $250 billion. According to McKinsey and Company, the value of trade between the parties is expected to reach $350 billion by 2020. In addition, the added value of the GCC for China is the ability of these countries to pump huge investments in the Chinese economy in several areas, especially in petrochemical industries, tourism, and real estate.

To gauge the impact of oil on China’s foreign policy decisions, one should recall that it opposed for four years, between 2004 and 2008, the Security Council’s attempts to adopt a binding resolution regarding the crisis in Darfur.  China chose to abstain from voting for most of the resolution and strived to weaken their language to avoid placing Sudan under heavy pressure or sanctions. For several years, Beijing opposed all members of the Security Council and ignored the pressure of international public opinion in order to preserve the 270,000 barrels per day it imported from Sudan.

Based on these facts, although the level of trade between Morocco and China may not be sufficient to enable the former to garner the latter’s clear support regarding the Western Sahara, the strategic importance of the Gulf oil for China, coupled with the strength of relations between the GCC and Morocco, may play in its favor and lead China to gradually support its position.

Special attention should be given to the symbolic place where King Mohammed VI announced his visit to China. The Moroccan monarch’s decision to announce the visit 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 partnership between Morocco and China is part of the partnership between the latter and the Gulf states. Therefore, rapprochement between Rabat and Beijing should be understood as an extension of the strategic alliance between Morocco and its Gulf allies.

Based on the above, one should be very cautious and avoid conferring that the strengthening of the economic partnership between Morocco and China in itself will push Beijing to adopt positions in favor of Morocco in the Western Sahara. If Morocco were to rely on the volume of trade with this country, it would be difficult to imagine 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 for the Chinese economy makes China’s support for Morocco likely to develop in the medium and long term. However, even in the event China were to take such as step, this would not go beyond maintaining the status quo and thwarting the attempts that will be made by some parties in the near future to put pressure on Rabat and conduct a comprehensive review of the political process launched in 2007.

A shorter version of this article was published on the New Arab

Samir Bennis is the co-founder of and editor-in-chief of Morocco World News. You can follow him on Twitter @SamirBennis

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