The spread of the coronavirus pandemic in the Maghreb accelerated in April 2020, confirming the unpreparedness of local health services. Lacking expertise, staff and equipment, many governments turned to outside help to deal with the rising number of infections, reinforcing ties with foreign partners eager to reinforce bilateral relations and consolidating ambitious commercial routes.
China gradually emerged as a focal point for worldwide medical assistance. On the 14th of April, a shipment of medical devices and equipment delivered by the Jack Ma Foundation arrived at the Mitiga airport in Tripoli. Conflict-torn Libya has been the latest beneficiary of what has been described as China’s ‘mask diplomacy’. Four days before the landing in Tripoli, Beijing had sent a second shipment of medical aid to the Houari Boumediène airport in Algiers, including personal protective equipment (PPE), testing kits and ventilators. A previous shipment from the China State Construction Engineering Corporation (CSCEC) in late March included a medical team, medical equipment and ventilators. More importantly, Beijing also agreed to build a hospital in Algeria and a similar offer was made to Tunisia, where in late March the Chinese ambassador Weng Wenbin discussed with the Minister of Health Abellatif Mekki medical assistance from Beijing.
The medical diplomacy aims at protecting China’s interest in countries where Beijing is investing heavily. In this context, it is interesting to note that 4.000 out of the 9.000 beds in the planned hospital in Algeria will be reserved for expats working for the CSCEC. Chinese companies are largely present in Algeria, where they have been involved particularly in the construction, road and railway sectors.
At the same time, medical assistance has been the main vector through which China is expanding its outreach in the Maghreb, increasing its soft power. The gradual withdrawal from the region of traditional partners like the US and the disarray in which the EU fell before and during the pandemic, is paving the way for major inroads by third parties like Beijing, that is consolidating its position in accordance with its known Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Conversely, recent disputes about the debt relief for African states facing the pandemic (to which China reportedly expressed its reservation) showed the limited extent of Beijing’s benevolence. Considering the unprecedented economic shock of coronavirus, this is casting a long shadow over the economic outlook of countries in the Maghreb, some of which are over-reliant on an oil industry seriously affected by plummeting prices and have constantly postponed economic reforms.
Aware that with every crisis comes an opportunity, China’s charm offensive could be a preliminary step for a major push in the region, subsequently followed by financial assistance and debt deals. However, an excessive leveraging can expose Beijing to the usual criticism over its debt-trap diplomacy, producing a serious setback for its international ambitions and the same leveraging could be a problem in a global economic depression scenario.
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Associate Fellow for the Conflict, Security and Development Programme at the IISS and Maghreb Analyst for the NATO Defense College Foundation, he regularly publishes on issues such as political developments, security and terrorism in the North Africa region