Credit: Dr Lina Benabdallah
Manara Magazine had the opportunity to interview Dr Lina Benabdallah about the history and dynamics of the ties between China and Algeria. Dr Benabdallah is Assistant Professor at Wake Forest University. She is the author of Shaping the Future of Power: Knowledge Production and Network-Building in China-Africa Relations (University of Michigan Press, 2020). Her research has appeared in International Studies Quarterly, The Journal of International Relations and Development, Third World Quarterly, African Studies Quarterly, Project on Middle East Political Science, as well as in public facing outlets such as the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage and Foreign Policy.
NAMAN HABTOM: Both modern China and Algeria were born through revolution during the Cold War. How has the relationship transformed in the decades since their respective founding?
LINA BENABDALLAH: Algeria’s governing party, Front de libération nationale (FLN), benefited a lot from its relationship to the Communist Party of China back in the 1950s. Mao frequently invited FLN delegations to China to discuss revolutionary leadership, anti-colonial solidarity, and so on. Even before official independence, the People’s Republic of China recognized the provisional Algerian government as the official representative of Algerians. Ties between Algeria and China have been solid ever since. Newly independent Algeria benefited a lot from cooperation with China especially in the medical sector where several medical teams from China traveled to Algeria to provide much-needed capacity building for local hospitals and clinics. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Algeria was among the first nations to send humanitarian aid and PPE to China. Algeria today produces the Chinese vaccine Sinopharm locally.
Does the relationship still have an ideological component or is it fundamentally pragmatic in nature?
The relationship today is still very much attached to revolutionary spirit even if the ideological component is no longer strongly socialist/Marxist. Both Algeria and China have made their own paths towards a form of state-led capitalism so in that respect the relationship has changed. However, history and historical solidarity between the two countries is still awake and talked about.
What does each side want to get out of the relationship?
I believe both sides want to maximize bilateral relations that are beneficial. For China, Algeria is a gateway to the Sahel as well as to the Mediterranean. For Algeria, China provides a solid alternative from the still-colonial ties with France and other imperial powers.
Is the Chinese approach to Algeria shaped through a bilateral, Maghrebian, Mediterranean, or African framework? How does this impact each side’s conduct?
Algeria is part of both platforms: Forum on China–Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) and China–Arab States Cooperation Forum (CASCF), which suggests that China’s foreign policymaking is flexible about these identity markers and does not rigidly place Algeria as a MENA country but allows it to be an African country which it is primarily with an Arab identity which is secondary to being African.
Have the protests in Algeria impacted the relationship? If so, how?
The Chinese government had a very strong relationship with President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who was ousted in March 2019 by protesters. Bouteflika was Algeria’s foreign affairs minister in Houari Boumédiène’s government at a time when relations to both China and the Soviet bloc were very important to Algeria. Bouteflika had visited China in later years and spearheaded contracting Chinese companies to construct apartment buildings, highways, and many signature projects such as the Mosque of Algiers. However, when Bouteflika was overthrown, China did not have any problems securing very strong relations with the incoming government. As seen through the COVID-19 crisis, China and Algeria demonstrated very stable strong relations.
Algeria hosts a large Chinese migrant population. What is the significance of this on the relationship and what type of reception have they received from Algerian society?
This used to be the case more or less ten years ago than it is now. Bouteflika had started development projects to build many housing units, highways, and other infrastructure projects that Chinese companies won and this is what led to the large migrant populations from China. However, in recent years, that funding has started to dry out and the contracts are not as big as they once were. We already see a big decrease in the number of Chinese migrants in Algeria and we will continue to see those numbers decrease over time.
How do Sino-Algerian relations differ from Sino-Moroccan or Sino-Tunisian relations?
Perhaps Sino-Algerian relations could benefit from focusing more on investment opportunities. There are no Confucius Institutes in Algeria, unlike in Morocco or Tunisia.
What can we expect to see in the future? What are new or nascent areas of cooperation and partnership?
Algeria signed on to be part of the Belt and Road Initiative and there are several projects that have started under that umbrella. There is a port contract in Cherchell which would help create a number of jobs, facilitate trading and shipping routes. The collaboration on producing the COVID-19 vaccine in Algeria also suggests a level of interest in pharmaceutical product collaboration. In addition, technology, artificial intelligence, and digital infrastructure are all areas of future cooperation between China and Algeria.