Algeria pivots east

Karam Said, Tuesday 18 Jul 2023

Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune was in China this week as part of Algeria’s desire to strengthen its relations with Beijing and Moscow, writes Karam Said

Algeria pivots east
Tebboune, right, walks with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing (photo: AP)


Uneasy relations with the West have been pushing Algeria to turn to the East.

Nearly a month since meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow to agree on ways to strengthen economic and military relations, Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune set off for Beijing on 17 July to explore ways to expand bilateral economic relations with China.

Algiers also wants to fast-track its accession to the BRICS group of countries consisting of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, so Tebboune’s talks with Chinese officials will cover that along with a range of regional and international issues of mutual concern.

The US has been watching these developments with concern, and on 14 July US Secretary of State Antony Blinken invited his Algerian counterpart Ahmed Attaf to visit Washington to discuss bilateral and regional issues.

A number of other signs point to an intensification of Algeria’s eastward pivot. In September 2022, Algerian forces took part in the Russian Vostok-2022 (East-2022) military exercises alongside 13 other nations, including China and India. In October 2022, Algeria also hosted Russian naval forces for joint naval exercises.

In May this year, Algiers announced that it had begun to prepare a new strategic partnership document to expand bilateral cooperation with Moscow into areas not included in the one the two countries signed in 2001.

Official statements from both countries speak about their increasingly close relationship, and since the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis Algiers has consistently abstained on UN Resolutions condemning the Russian invasion. The West interprets abstention as active political and diplomatic support for Moscow.

Military relations between Algiers and Moscow have made considerable progress, and in addition to the above-mentioned joint exercises, Russia is one of Algeria’s main arms suppliers. According to a March 2023 report by the Stockholm Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Algeria is the third-largest importer of Russian weapons after India and China.

Algerian-Chinese relations are making similar inroads in energy and other fields. In June, the Algerian Energy Ministry signed an agreement with a consortium of three Chinese firms to establish two Algerian-Chinese companies to operate the Gara Djebilet iron ore mine in Algeria’s south-eastern Tindouf Province.

The mine, which went into operation a year ago, has reserves estimated at 3.5 billion tons. More significantly, in December 2022, Algiers and Beijing signed executive plans for the joint implementation of China’s Belt and Road Initiative and for a three-year cooperation plan in key fields from 2022 to 2024.

Algeria’s deepening relations with the East has been a source of concern to Western nations. In September 2022, 27 members of the US Congress called on Blinken to sanction Algeria because of its arms deals with Russia. The campaign was spearheaded by Congresswoman Lisa McClain, who called for “significant sanctions on Algeria” under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).

In December, 17 EU Parliament members wrote to President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen asking her to reconsider the EU-Algerian Partnership Agreement on the grounds of Algiers’ support for Russia.

They held that Algeria was among the four top buyers of Russian arms and thus was contributing to funding the Russian government’s war against Ukraine.

In moving closer to Moscow and Beijing, Algiers aims to accomplish several objectives, one of which is to enhance its prospects of joining BRICS, a subject that Tebboune raised in his talks in Moscow in June.

“Algeria wants to accelerate its entrance into BRICS and free itself of the hegemony of the dollar and the euro, which would greatly benefit our economy,” he told reporters.

On 7 August 2022, he said that “Algeria is interested in the BRICS countries because they form an economic and political force” and expressed his hope that his country’s “potential membership in this club of emergent economies will be rapid.”

Other aims of closer cooperation with Moscow are to benefit from Russia’s expertise in oil and gas exploration, cybersecurity, and grain cultivation. Algeria also hopes to attract more Russian tourists.

In like manner, Algeria stands to benefit from closer relations with Beijing. China is noted for its dephosphorisation technology that could help to maximise the use of the iron ore reserves in the Gara Djebilet mine.

The Chinese are also keen to invest in other industrial sectors in Algeria.

Stronger military relations with Russia and China will offer Algeria access to these countries’ advanced military technologies. While Moscow has been a main armaments source for Algeria since its independence from France in the early 1960s, Algeria’s growing military cooperation with China is fast becoming an essential component of their bilateral relationship.

Both Moscow and Beijing are especially interested in expanding their military partnerships with Algeria at this time, as Algiers has recently announced the largest military budget in its history, estimated at $23 billion.

Without a doubt, Algeria’s eastward pivot is in part a response to Western approaches to the Western Sahara question in neighbouring Morocco. The US and several European countries have recently come out in support of Morocco’s sovereignty over the Western Sahara, where Algeria has backed the Polisario Front in its 15-year-old war for independence from Morocco.

Algeria hopes it can leverage its good relations with Moscow, Beijing, and New Delhi into support for its position on the Western Sahara in international forums. It has been pushing for a broader debate in the UN on the implementation of the ceasefire agreement and holding a referendum on Western Saharan self-determination.

Geopolitical pragmatism is the operative term behind Algeria’s eastward reorientation, especially given the escalating Western pressures on the country.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 20 July, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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