Reviewing the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative in North Africa

By Tunisian journalist Rakia Selmi, first published by TAP. This report was produced as a result of North Africa Journalism Reporting Grants provided by the Africa-China Reporting Project in partnership with Inkyfada, for journalists from North Africa to conduct investigations on North Africa-China relations.

In 2018, Tunisia signed an agreement to join the “Belt and Road” initiative in an effort to find ways and opportunities to develop and advance its economy, develop economic cooperation with China, and make Tunisia the centre of global trade flow. This initiative, which was established by China in 2013, aims to support investments, partnerships and cooperation between the East and the West in various fields, all based on the exchange of common interests.

Tunisia sought to realise this agreement through a number of steps, including participation in the second session of the International Cooperation Forum for the Belt and Road Initiative held in Beijing between April 25-27, 2019, as well as regular official visits, such as that of the former Tunisian Foreign Minister, Khmais Jhinaoui, in 2017 and 2018. In September 2018, during former Prime Minister Youssef Chahed’s visit to participate in the summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, an agreement was signed to establish three infrastructure projects in the governorate of Medenine in southern Tunisia: a railway link project, a bridge, and an industrial zone.

In the same year, 2018, the “Tunisian-Chinese Business Council” was established, seeking to consolidate trade relations between the two countries as China is Tunisia’s fourth largest trading partner and third largest exporter to the Tunisian market. The Silk Road Organisation for International Cultural and Economic Cooperation (SICO) opened an office in Tunisia (SICO Tunisia) in April 2017, which was their first one in Africa.

In February 2019, during the visit of the former Tunisian Minister of Investment, Development and International Cooperation, Ziad Ladhari, to China, Infrastructure investment projects were signed in the governorate of Sfax, Bizerte and Nabeul, including a highway, bridges and light metro project.

However, according to a number of specialists whom we met to discuss the most prominent obstacles in moving forward with the old “Silk Road” or what is now known as the “Belt and Road” initiative, all of these efforts were unfortunately not topped off with the actual implementation of these “grand” projects. These major investments and projects could have created a boom in Tunisian development, created jobs and reduced unemployment rates, especially among those with higher qualifications and degrees.

According to the assessment of the Vice-President of the Tunisian/Chinese Business Council, Doha Mizouni Chtourou, due to legal procedures imposed by Tunisia, they have not progressed “one iota” in implementation since they joined the Belt and Road Initiative in 2018, this despite multiple aspects of cooperation and partnerships. This statement refers, of course, to Tunisia’s adoption of legal tenders and requests for proposals for setting up projects that contradict China’s policy in completing investment projects, whether governmental or private, where China deals from a leadership standpoint and does not favour legal tenders that lengthen the procedures for implementing projects.

According to Chtourou, Tunisia has not worked to overcome these obstacles and administrative problems to move towards actual involvement in the initiative and to attract major investments and projects, pointing to the absence of political will and government initiatives to move towards the real implementation of the projects that were agreed upon in advance, and to move on to other projects.

She further stated that the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), which was held on November 29-30, was not attended by the President of the Republic, nor the Prime Minister as is customary for other member states. This set a negative tone for the partnership with China, who are calling for strengthening reforms and removing obstacles that obstruct economic growth, adopting new measures in the fields of investment, launching major projects, and coordinating between ministries in order to produce tangible results for young graduates and authorities from the Belt and Road Initiative projects in Tunisia.

Chtourou stressed that Tunisia’s promising potential for investment, its strategic geographical location in the Arab, African and Euro-Mediterranean regions, its distinguished relations with European and African countries, and the availability of qualified human resources, are all factors that support Tunisia as an important partner in this initiative.

As for Amira Kaddour, a university professor and finance expert, she believes that the specificity of the projects of the Belt and Road Initiative, which many countries around the world have joined and benefited from through the great investment and operating opportunities it offers, are “big and giant” project,s and its slogan is win/win, adding that the slogan and uniqueness can be verified by observing the various projects carried out within the framework of this initiative in various different countries.

The expert stressed Tunisia’s absolute need for such “grand” projects, which have the ability to spark great change with its potential opportunities, noting that there is an overlap between the Chinese economic diplomatic vision (largely through the Belt and Road Initiative), and investment opportunities available in Tunisia. The main opportunities for investment lie in the operational aspect of employing those who hold higher degrees, particularly in technical and technological disciplines and the innovation index, which are areas in which Tunisia has achieved significant successes for Arab and African nations.

She further highlighted that Chinese projects and investments are focused on major operational projects in the technological and technical fields, and as Tunisia seeks to be a technological gateway to Africa, it is in need of such projects that are characterised by rapid completion and organisation. According to her, this would help with reducing the unemployment rate in people who hold higher degrees, eliminating regional disparities in the development field, as well as creating economic dynamism.

Amira Kaddour believes that the failure to actively pursue this partnership results in Tunisia missing several opportunities for qualitative development and employment. Given that scientific research is tributary to economic development, she stresses the need to put in the work to overcome the many bureaucratic obstacles, in order to strengthen and combine cultural and scientific relations, so that Tunisia does not lose out on opportunities that will instead be redirected to other North African countries.

According to Badra Gaaloul, the President of the International Center for Security and Military Studies, partnerships and international cooperation are primarily political, and Tunisia’s relations with the European Union and America are more important, meaning they did not want to risk these relations for partnerships such as that with China, which could have brought big projects such as the railway project linking Gabes and Medenine to Zarzis, the industrial zone project in Zarzis, and the bridge project linking Jurf and Ajim in Djerba, which are, in her opinion, all very important.

Gaaloul stressed the need to create a kind of balance in relations with other countries, and that Tunisia should not associate itself with having specific partners (such as the European Union and America), to avoid hegemony and outside control. According to her, Tunisia should rather diversify partnerships to further the country’s development, to create more jobs and economic and social growth, noting that diversification of partnerships with other countries is positive, and that each partner can play a part in achieving the desired economic transition.

She believes that Tunisia did not provide adequate facilities for the actual implementation of projects related to the Belt and Road Initiative, despite official involvement. She further notes that political problems and the war of positioning between political parties and authorities are among the main factors that are disrupting the cooperation with China and focusing on economic issues.

Gaaloul said that slowing down the active engagement in this initiative would cause the country to [potentially] lose an “important” economic partnership with China. A more vibrant, efficient and comprehensive Chinese-Tunisian partnership will require a lot of pragmatic focus on political and diplomatic relations, moving away from classic diplomacy, and adopting popular diplomacy in order to motivate major industrial projects and investments, in addition to supporting a cultural exchange and encouraging Chinese investment in Tunisia by organising major forums between the two.

It should be noted that in 2013, China launched the “Belt and Road” initiative, which was built on the remains of the Silk Road, and aims to connect China with the rest of the world by investing billions of dollars in building ports, roads, railways and industrial zones along the Silk Road that links China with Asia, Europe and Africa. This is set to be the largest infrastructure project in human history, and includes two main branches: on land “the Silk Road Economic Belt”, and at sea “the Maritime Silk Road”.

The “Belt and Road” initiative has become the largest platform for international cooperation in the world, with 141 countries and 32 international organisations joining it. According to a recent World Bank report focusing on 71 economies geographically located along the corridors of the Belt and Road Initiative, Belt and Road projects can help lift 7.6 One million people are in extreme poverty and 32 million are in moderate poverty worldwide.

African countries are amongst those that benefit from this initiative as it will enhance the sectors of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, which was officially established in the wake of the first ministerial conference held in the Chinese capital, Beijing, from 10 -12 October, 2000.