Morocco: The another Chinese Gateway to Africa

-Ashish Panday*

Ad-Dār al-Bayḍā , popularly known as, Casablanca , one of the largest city in Africa has surpassed some of the big names on Global Financial Centres Index.; ahead of Abu Dhabi, Amsterdam, Dublin, Bangkok and  more importantly when it surpassed Johannesburg to be ranked the number one financial center in the Global Financial Centers Index this year.

How all this has happened?  Whenever we talk about Rise of Africa, the prima focus remains with Republic of South Africa and more importantly the Johannesburg.

Casablanca is the largest city in Morocco, located in the central-western part of the country bordering the Atlantic Ocean.  If to believe the Wikipedia, Casablanca is Morocco’s chief port and one of the largest financial centers on the sub continent. The 2012 census recorded a population of about 4 million in the prefecture of Casablanca. Casablanca is considered the economic and business center of Morocco, although the national political capital is Rabat. The leading Moroccan companies and international corporations doing Moroccan business have their headquarters and main industrial facilities in Casablanca. The Port of Casablanca is one of the largest artificial ports in the world, and the second largest port of North Africa, after Tanger-Med 40 km east of Tangier.

On military front Casablanca also hosts the primary naval base for the Royal Moroccan Navy.

Last year, Banque Marocaine du Commerce Extérieur Bank, (BCME Bank), one amongst the largest commercial bank in Morocco, have opened its branch in Shanghai. The Bank of China, China’s oldest financial institution, opened its first branch in Morocco this year. Moroccan banks are interested in China, and Chinese banks are interested in Morocco.

In fact this affinity goes to the history and in fact one can say dates back to 1958-59, when Morocco was few of the countries, in fact second only country in Africa, which recognized the People’s Republic of China in place of Nationalist who lose the war and have to move to Formosa, now a day’s know as Taiwan.

In present, this tie has another example when last year when Morocco’s King Mohammed VI made a state visit to China. It is more important because it is the second such trip to China during his reign. His government didn’t make any delay while pushing that king’s trip in May 2016 played a major role in moving the relationship forward and certainly helped open up business in the development of Tangiers as an export zone but, also in other sectors such as tourism.  Chinese were also open heart while signing of a China-Africa investment fund and plans for a $10 billion industrial city to be built in Tangiers, Morocco’s northern hub.

The Chinese were even more interested to see the Morocco as an opportunity to develop factories for export to the European Union, just across the straits of Gibraltar, a new way to Europe routing from Africa.

This high ranking and the affinity of Casablanca- Beijing banking relationship has more to say than mere economic tie ups and indicate the ongoing close tie-up between Rabat and Beijing than anything else.

I remember in 2000, couldn’t recollect the actual months of issue, the Economist published a story about Africa, “The Hopeless Continent,”  concluding that  the thesis that Africa was beyond help, and doomed to a future of barbarism and underdevelopment because of its poor social institutions and corrupt governance.  Economist, is its edition, was as simple as wrong, and it took not much to get it proved.

While writing this line on March 2017, the story line of economist has already faced a complete rebuttal.

It’s useless to discuss the factors, from the tidal wave of Chinese investment to strong demand in commodities and increasing modernization, African countries have begun to rank among the world’s fastest growing in the past fifteen years. From 2000 to 2010, African countries averaged 5.4 percent in economic growth, which made the continent rank among the fastest-growing regions of the world

And same time the continent became central to the strategic interest of the rising superpower from the east: China.  After all it’s the lure of in fact experiencing the throes of the most massive industrialization in human history, which began to identify Africa, a continent full of natural resources, commodities and a vast untapped market, as a place of great long-term strategic value.  If it to believe from a negligible trickle in 2000, China’s trade with Africa topped $160 billion in 2015, ranking as far and away the largest trade partner with the continent. In 2014, China signed more than $70 billion in infrastructure contracts in the continent, and Chinese banks now provide more loans to African nations than does the World Bank.  The increased china in Africa, raises various eyebrows and no wonder from other world.  And it is not only limited to the Governments but also some sorts of headlines caused distress among nongovernmental organizations and in Western capitals.

It’s still doubtful that this rapid growth will remain continue in next several decades and will allow the Africa in moving towards a more central place in the global world, rather than in present existing on the margins  it has.  The vastness of a continent nearly four times the size of the continental United States, a young and booming population, in an era of rapid urbanization and growth, when on a side increase the expectations but on the other there seems no assurance about its longtivity and no one have the right answer that will present momentum ensure the presence of Africa will be crucial to global business and political players of our day. The Chinese sponsored growth will allow African states for them to claim a larger voice on global affairs, and with growing economies of increasing scale, will eventually claim positions of prominence.

Morocco’s recent affinity is symbolic and gives an ample clear view as to what going in Africa. Chinese think, Morocco can be China’s liaison to some opportunities and claim to offer a stable place to do business. China is doing its part as well; an event held by the state-owned Global Times in February named “Morocco- The best potential destination” in the world in a ceremony attended by a representative of the Moroccan government. But the story is not all about it. At the political level Morocco and China have started to see eye-to-eye on some issues, most notably in the policy of  non-intervention in state affairs. The Moroccan press has occasionally reported on the oppression of faith in China, the government of Morocco has largely abstained from commenting on issues relating to China’s “core interests”.

There is another side of fast running GDP of such countries which is the result of Chinese labor and capital which often encounter frustrated unemployed or underemployed masses with the lawful right to protest, petition, and vote against “all things Chinese” that often compete with “all things local” — as was the case in 2010 with the Colum Coal Mine in Zambia.

Moreover, while managing such local anger, Beijing also risks being caught between politically opposed parties, who are normally in relentless pursuit of political armor to depose each other. In his successful 2011 presidential campaign in Zambia, Michael Sata employed heavy anti-Chinese rhetoric to gain votes. All such situations for its economic engagements and diplomacy in Africa, Beijing often finds itself between a rock and a hard place.

China has its own complicacy, ambitions and problem as well.  it’s relationship with Taiwan is complicated by geopolitical rivalry with the United States and China’s territorial ambitions; in a similar fashion, the fate of the Western Sahara is closely tied to Morocco’s longstanding icy relationship with Algeria. Algeria has long-supported POLISARIO, a Socialist party that carried out a guerrilla campaign against Morocco until a ceasefire in 1991. China, for its part, has traditionally had stronger ties with Algeria than with any other country in Northern Africa. In Morocco, one can easily visit and search websites linked to POLISARIO; it is far harder in China to read about Xinjiang or Tibet.

Even the Moroccan press has often reported on China’s lack of freedom of religion and restrictions faced by Chinese Muslims.

Although such voices goes little noticed till now and Chinese plans appear on track. Across Africa, the red flag of China is flying. Lucrative deals are being struck to buy its commodities – oil, platinum, gold and minerals. New embassies and air routes are opening up. The continent’s new Chinese elite can be seen everywhere, shopping at their own expensive boutiques, driving Mercedes and BMW limousines, sending their children to exclusive private schools.

After all the little heard voice of a seller from a small market  “What does it say about us Moroccans, if Chinese can come here and sell more than us, may be not as  important between the joy of high growth and investments, but for how long? I am sure soon there will be someone to listen them, just on the gateway of Africa.

*Sr Company Secretary & Commentator on International Affairs

Featured Image Caption:  China’s President Xi Jinping (R) and Moroccan King Mohammed VI shake hands after signing documents during a ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, on May 11th.

Photo Courtesy: thearabweekly.com