Economy, diplomacy, membership of Brics: the challenges of the Algerian president’s visit to Beijing

After Moscow in mid-June, the Algerian president has been in Beijing since Monday at the invitation of Xi Jinping. This first state visit of Abdelmadjid Tebboune to China, the first in fifteen years for an Algerian president, involves many issues: economy, candidacy for Brics, diplomacy. Less than a year and a half before the presidential election, the head of state wants to show the image of an Algeria on the offensive.

While he has still not formalized his long-awaited visit to France, Abdelmadjid Tebboune has taken the road to Beijing. After Moscow in mid-June, the Algerian president will conclude on Friday, July 21, a state visit to China, which began on Monday at the invitation of Xi Jinping, his first since becoming president.

This trip seems to be the logical continuation of his tour, because what Abdelmadjid Tebboune wants more than anything else is to push the door to the very select Brics club, the economic grouping that brings together the new powers (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) that he is supposedly courting.

When he came to power in 2019, President Tebboune made no secret of his desire to restore weight to his country and mark Algiers’ return to the international scene.

“China, Algeria’s first partner before France”

The purpose of this visit was primarily a way to support trade relations between the African country and the Chinese giant and expand this partnership to new areas: nineteen agreements were signed between Algeria and China in the sectors of trade, telecommunications, rail transport or agriculture.

The economic partnership between the two countries is already very important, comments Brahim Oumansour, director of the Maghreb Observatory at the Institute of International and Strategic Relations (Iris). “Last year, the two countries signed a major contract for the exploitation and processing of Algerian phosphate with the creation of a joint venture between the two states. A seven billion dollar project”.

Algeria: Tebboune visits Beijing, head of state wants Algeria to join Brics

05:38 Algeria: Tebboune visits Beijing, the head of state wants Algeria to join Brics © FRANCE 24

“In Algeria, China has won several infrastructure projects in the past”, continues the researcher, listing the colossal projects, from the expansion of Algiers airport, to the East-West highway, through the construction of the new building of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

In the military sector, China is the second largest arms supplier after Russia.

This visit to China “is part of the desire to strengthen this Sino-Algerian economic cooperation, which has continued to intensify over the last twenty years”, explains Brahim Oumansour. “China is now Algeria’s leading partner ahead of France, with 17% of the Algerian market share for China and around ten for France,” he explains.

Algiers is looking to revitalize its economy after a long period of recession and shows a desire to push Chinese investment to “diversify its production in Algeria to get out of its dependence on hydrocarbons, which represent 60% of income and 97% of its exports”, the Iris researcher concludes.

What interests for China?

Beijing also has something to learn from this meeting: to diversify its energy sources. China produces gas itself, but not enough for its consumption, and its imports represent more than 40% of its needs.

In May, executives from Sonatrach, Algeria’s national oil and gas company, had already traveled to China to discuss energy cooperation, according to the Algerian state news agency, Algérie Presse Service, and above all to sign a contract for the supply of juicy gas with their Chinese partners.

But according to Brahim Oumansour, it is not only for gas that China has a special interest in Algeria. Firstly, “the country is full of minerals such as phosphate, iron and rare earths”, explains the expert, but above all “Algeria is at the gateway to both Africa and the European market, which is very strategic in its project for a new silk road”, analyzes the researcher, referring to the huge Chinese project to build port, railway and land infrastructure in the Mediterranean area.

Objective Brics

A month before the summit of the group of new powers and after the Russian green light, Abdelmadjid Tebboune came to seek Beijing’s support for his membership of BRICS.

It is primarily a personal issue for the Algerian president, according to Stéphane Ballong, Africa editor of . “The main reason is political: President Tebboune is coming to an end, there are elections in December 2024, so it is very important for him to restore his country’s image internationally.”

Beijing’s support is all the more important as Algiers’ candidacy suffers from a few weaknesses. Economically, Algeria has some catching up to do to be able to push the door to the club of the great new powers. “If we compare Algeria today with BRICs, in terms of industrialization and international trade, the country is a small player compared to the powers of BRICs”, describes Stéphane Ballong. “For example, in 2021, Algerian exports were worth $19 billion, and South Africa, which is the smallest Brics exporter, made three or even four times more than Algeria.”

The director of the Maghreb Observatory, Brahim Oumansour, also admits weaknesses in the Algerian file: “There is a weakness in local production and structural reforms that need to be made (banking, port, airport, railway infrastructure, etc.). In addition, the country has delays in the integration of the world market, especially in terms of currency exchange”.

“Algeria has very good relations with Russia, China and South Africa. What remains is to convince the Brazilians, with whom the Algerians have relations that can be described as friendly within the framework of solidarity in the countries of the south”, analyzes Brahim Oumansour. “But for the Indians and Brazilians, it will have to provide guarantees for important structural reforms if it wants to enter the Brics.” assures the researcher, concluding with these phrases: “Algeria has its chances, but it is not won in advance”.

The Algerian candidacy in Brics is therefore not certain to succeed, but for Stéphane Ballong the country would have its chances in light of the desire to expand Brics to Africa. It is also reflected in the invitation of non-member countries to their virtual summit, as with Egypt and Senegal in 2022. This year, Algiers was invited.

The “non-aligned” club

With Brics, Algeria wants to show its desire to counterbalance the dominant Western economic powers. “It is also somewhat what defines the Brics group”, continues the Africa specialist, “this desire to get out of a unipolar world represented by the Bretton Woods agreements, (agreements aimed at organizing the international monetary system after the Second World War, ed. note), and to create a multipolar world.

“Abdelmadjid Tebboune also expressed this desire”, continues Stéphane Ballong, “when he presented his candidacy for Brics, to get out of a unipolar world and create a new world order”.

And it is for this reason that Algiers has always maintained good relations both with its European neighbors and with Moscow, despite Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Algeria was also among the twenty African countries that had abstained from voting in the March 2, 2022 vote at the United Nations aimed at sanctioning the Russian intervention in Ukraine.

On June 15, the Algerian president appeared on a state visit to Russia together with Vladimir Putin. A “confirmation on the part of Algiers not to give in to Western pressure and maintain its balance”, analyzes Brahim Oumansour. “Algeria has agreed to boost its gas supplies to Europe via Italy, while maintaining its partnerships and a distance from Ukraine”.

The stakes were also high for Algiers, which had just obtained support from Moscow for its candidacy for Brics.

After Russia, China had already declared, through the voice of its diplomatic chief, in favor of Algeria joining BRICS.

After this trip to Beijing, Abdelmadjid Tebboune can congratulate himself on a diplomatic success, China has confirmed it this time: it will support Algeria’s candidacy.

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