In this issue of the ChinaMed Observer, we take stock of Sino-Moroccan relations as the two countries prepare to commemorate the 65th anniversary of their diplomatic ties this November 1. We examine recent trends in Moroccan press coverage of economic engagement with China, Chinese foreign policy and Morocco's alleged application to join the BRICS. Additionally, we delve into how Moroccan media portrayed China in the context of the offers of humanitarian assistance to Rabat following the devastating magnitude 7 earthquake that struck the Marrakesh-Safi region on the night of September 8.
What emerges is that Morocco is actively seeking to strengthen its ties with China, driven by both economic and political considerations. However, Rabat also recognizes the continued important European market for its economy, maintains a preference for bilateral relationships over multilateral engagements, and seeks to diversify relations as international tensions grow.
Moroccan media coverage in recent months has prominently featured praise for the economic partnership between Rabat and Beijing. Recalling the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) signed in 2017, Moroccan news outlets have highlighted China’s commitment to “sustainable development,” exemplified by its growing investments in renewable energy and desalination projects.
For instance, Bayane Al Yaoume, the newspaper of the Party of Progress of Socialism, affirmed that the MOU and its related agreements represent a new era of bilateral cooperation with China as Morocco’s most important trading partner in Asia. This celebration should not be attributed solely to the paper’s left-wing slant, as according to The Economist’s “China Going Global Investment Index 2023”, Morocco has become the third most attractive country in Africa for Chinese investment, trailing only Egypt and South Africa, and 33rd globally.
According to ChinaMed Data, Chinese exports to Morocco have experienced a significant year-on-year rise, especially between 2020 and 2021. 2021 was also a record year for Chinese construction and engineering companies as they signed close to USD 1 billion worth of contracts in Morocco. In recent months, Moroccan commentators have consistently lauded Chinese-built and/or -financed projects as important milestones. For instance, in June 2023, Morocco and Guchen Hi-tech signed a USD 6.4 billion MOU to construct an EV battery “gigafactory” near Rabat. Another example is Morocco’s second high-speed rail line, planned to connect Casablanca and Agadir, whose preliminary draft studies were awarded to the China Railway Design Corporation in July 2023 (France’s SNCF was the partner behind Morocco’s first HSR line but due to political tensions, it did not place a bid for the new line). Despite interest from Spain, South Korea and Germany, construction of the new HSR line is likely to be assigned to China Railway Construction Corp, which had previously completed the Mohammed VI Bridge in Rabat.
These economic developments unfold against the backdrop of Morocco’s aspiration to draw China closer to its side in the Western Sahara dispute with Algeria. Indeed, despite China selling its Wing Loong II drones to Algeria, the official Agence Marocaine de Presse emphasized that “the two sides noted the concordance of their views and mutual support for their positions in international forums,” following the meeting between Moroccan Prime Minister Aziz Akhannouch and Chinese Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress Zhao Leji in May 2023.
Moroccan newspapers have also underscored the significance of cultural exchanges between the two nations. Al Ittihad reported the words of an official Moroccan source, who lauded the Confucius Institutes, of which Morocco hosts three, as a “model for the African continent” for providing free training in Chinese language and culture and for developing programs to train Chinese language teachers. Furthermore, Morocco has become the favored North African destination for Chinese tourists, who can enjoy visa-free stays of up to 90 days.
While a few Moroccan sources praised the offers of Chinese humanitarian assistance in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, it is noteworthy that they primarily relied on French-language Chinese state media sources such as People’s Daily or CGTN. One exception is Maroc Hebdo, which interviewed the Chinese Ambassador to Morocco Li Changlin on occasion of an event held in Rabat on September 19, 2023, celebrating the 74th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China and the forthcoming 65th anniversary of diplomatic relations between China and Morocco. The article spared no effort providing a detailed account of Chinese generosity, such as the USD 200,000 contribution from China’s Red Cross to Morocco’s Red Crescent and the aid offered by the Chinese Chamber of Commerce in Morocco. Notably, this occurred in the context of Morocco deciding to accept only limited amounts of foreign aid, especially from France.
Interestingly, the humanitarian assistance received from China and other countries, and the cold shoulder given to offers from France, Turkey, the United States, and Israel, has not been a subject of debate in Moroccan media. This may be to avoid stirring up controversies and potentially closing the door to further assistance. Le Matin.ma, without further elaboration, published the remarks of Moroccan journalist Samira Sitail (who was just recently named ambassador to France, filling a post left vacant for ten months). On the French channel BFMTV shortly after the earthquake, Sitail affirmed that “it is wrong to say that Morocco has refused aid from any country.” The journalist, instead, argued that the absence of a Moroccan response to French aid proposals was due to the Kingdom’s organizational and logistical priorities.
Nonetheless, in French media, these events have been interpreted as yet another example of France’s frayed relations with North Africa. French historian Pierre Vermeren, for instance, underlined that while the shared Francophone and historical ties should facilitate French engagement in Morocco over British and Spanish efforts, Paris’ recent attempts to improve relations with Algeria do not align with Marocco’s interests, particularly in light of the Western Sahara question. Moreover, for Vermeren, Morocco “would rather surround itself with friendly monarchies.”
During an interview on French TV channel LCI, French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna was asked about the growing sense that many African countries, including Morocco, would rather “deal with the Chinese or the Russians” who do not claim the “moral high ground.” While this was the sole reference to China in the French debate on disaster relief to Morocco, it is important to note that the issue of China looms large. Many are wondering what China is getting right in North Africa as France falls short. This perspective is evident in a Radio France podcast that connected Chinese investment in Morocco to an ongoing “geopolitical reshuffling of cards.” Reflecting the mainstream position in the French debate, senior journalist Pierre Haski argued that Morocco is seen as an attractive, cheap, and geographically well-positioned alternative for Chinese investors, now that they no longer feel welcome in the West.
The 15th BRICS summit in Johannesburg (August 22-24) was widely covered in the Moroccan media, especially after South Africa’s Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor mentioned that around 23 countries, including Morocco, had officially expressed their interest in joining the BRICS. Despite Rabat later denying having applied for membership, Moroccan analysts continued to discuss the BRICS, focusing on two key issues. First, whether joining the BRICS may constitute an opportunity for Morocco and second, criticizing South Africa and Algeria’s so-called “Morocco-phobia,” exemplified by the invitation extended to the Polisario Front’s leader Brahim Ghali to participate in this latest BRICS summit.
Regarding the first issue, some commentators emphasized that Rabat already has robust partnerships with several BRICS members, particularly Brazil and China. Therefore, they questioned the relevance of Morocco’s potential participation in the group. Moreover, some analysts also emphasized the importance of preserving strong partnerships with Western countries for the Moroccan economy and the Kingdom’s international strategy of “hedging.”
Indeed, Professor Mohamed Badine El Yattioui, writing in Le Matin.ma, pointed out that joining the BRICS should be thoroughly analyzed, taking into account that the European Union is Morocco’s primary trade and investment partner. According to him, unless the King wants to “diversify partnerships to the point of important geopolitical and geoeconomic change,” BRICS membership may not be advisable, given the risk of offending such a crucial partner as the EU. These concerns echoed those expressed by the US-based Moroccan newspaper Al-hurra in January 2022, which examined the potential negative impact that closer ties with China could have on Rabat’s relations with Washington.
As to the invitation extended to the Polisario, Moroccan newspapers were extremely careful in attributing blame solely to South Africa, rather than to the BRICS as a whole. Indeed, they emphasized that Russia and China “always refused to invite [the Polisario Front] to their multilateral cooperation summits with African countries.” In China’s case, Al Ittihad, a newspaper published by the leftist party USFP (Socialist Union of Popular Forces), praised Beijing’s role. It highlighted how the “Chinese touch” was significant in the decision to invite both Saudi Arabia and Iran to join the BRICS, following Beijing’s successful mediation between the two countries in March. The journalist also highlighted the relevance of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s speech at the BRICS Summit for China’s agenda of peace and development “for the African continent and the Middle East.” While such praise is not unusual in Moroccan media, it usually pertains to business and economic ties: the politics-only angle is quite new and may signify China’s expanding regional influence.
To sum up, Moroccan press coverage of the economic partnership between Rabat and Beijing depicts China as a key partner for Morocco’s development and celebrates BRI projects. When it comes to the aftermath of the earthquake, Chinese support has been highlighted, although Moroccan media have been very careful not to overshadow relationships with other important partners and to dispel misconceptions.
Nevertheless, the reinforced cooperation with China and the (discreet) refusal of official aid from France have sparked debate in French media, which interpreted these developments as a proof of Paris’ diminishing influence in Morocco in favor of Beijing and Moscow. Regarding BRICS’ enlargement, Moroccan commentators have underscored Morocco’s continued emphasis on maintaining robust economic relations with the West and a degree of skepticism towards the emerging alternative platform, despite their commitment to strengthening relations with China.
 Abdessamad Dniden, Almaghrib iartaqii ‘ila al-markaz al-thaalith 'ifriquia ua al-33 ‘alaamiiaa ‘ala mustauaa giadhb almustathmiriin al-siiniina المغرب يرتقي إلى المركز الثالث إفريقيا والـ 33 عالميا على مستوى جذب المستثمرين الصينيين, [Morocco rises to third place in Africa and 33rd globally in terms of attracting Chinese investors], Baian al-yaum, September 26, 2023, link.
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3 TGV Marrakech-Agadir: une société chinoise pour les études [Marrakech-Agadir high-speed rail: a Chinese company for the studies], Bladi.net, July 12, 2023, link; The Mediterranean region looks at China, ChinaMed, May 2023, link.
 Hamza Faouzi, hal taqtarib as-Sīn min al-fauz bi-safqat inshā’ “al-qitār as-sarī’i” bayna ad-Dar al-Baydā’ wa-Akādīr? هل تقترب الصين من الفوز بصفقة إنشاء "القطار السريع" بين الدار البيضاء وأكادير؟ [Is China close to winning the “high-speed train” deal between Casablanca and Agadir?], Hespress, May 12, 2023, link; La compétition s’intensifie pour remporter les contrats de la LGV au Maroc [Competition intensifies to win high-speed rail contracts in Morocco], Maroc Diplomatique, May 29, 2023, link
 Rabat, Beijing Express Common Aspiration to Diversify Bilateral Partnership (Statement), Agence Marocaine de Presse, May 11, 2023, link.
 fi alsanawat aleashr al'akhirat : almaghrib yuhriz taqaduman malhuzan dimn alwujuhat almufadalat lilmustathmirin alsiyniiyn في السنوات العشر الأخيرة : المغرب يحرز تقدما ملحوظا ضمن الوجهات المفضلة للمستثمرين الصينيين, [In the last ten years: Morocco has made remarkable progress among the preferred destinations for Chinese investors], Al Ittihad, September 27, 2023, link; bihudur 'amin lajnat alhizb alshuyueii alsiynii libaladiat bikin : aitifaq bayn jamieat muhamad alkhamis wajamieat bikin lildirasat alduwalia (maehad kunfushius) fi majal takwin alkafa'at almutakhasisat fi altadbir alsiyahii wallughat waleulum بحضور أمين لجنة الحزب الشيوعي الصيني لبلدية بكين : اتفاق بين جامعة محمد الخامس وجامعة بكين للدراسات الدولية (معهد كونفوشيوس) في مجال تكوين الكفاءات المتخصصة في التدبير السياحي واللغات والعلوم [In the presence of the Secretary of the Beijing Municipal Committee of the Communist Party of China: an agreement between Mohammed V University and Beijing University of International Studies (Confucius Institute) in the field of training specialized competencies in tourism management, languages and sciences, September 25, 2023, Al Ittihad, link.
 The Mediterranean region looks at China, ChinaMed, June 2023, link.
 Sun Hongyu & Liu Yishuang, La Chine apporte son aide au Maroc à la suite du tremblement de terre [China brings aid to Morocco in the aftermath of the earthquake], People’s Daily (French edition), September 12, 2023, link.
 Hiba Chaker, Le Maroc et la Chine célèbrent les 65 années de leurs relations. Un partenariat qui se réinvente [Morocco and China celebrate 65 years of their relations. A partnership that reinvents itself], Maroc Hebdo, September 23, 2023, link.
 Séisme au Maroc: quatre pays autorisés à démarrer leurs interventions sur le terrain [Earthquake in Morocco: four countries authorized to begin their interventions in the field], Le Matin.ma, September 10, 2023, link.
 Paris tente d'étouffer la polémique naissante sur l'aide au Maroc après le séisme [Paris tries to quell the emerging controversy over aid to Morocco after the earthquake], ArabNews en français, September 12, 2023, link.
 Transcription of the interview in French. “Entretien de Mme Catherine Colonna, ministre de l'Europe et des affaires étrangères, avec LCI le 15 septembre 2023, sur les relations franco-égyptiennes, la situation au Niger, le séisme au Maroc et le conflit en Ukraine” [Interview with Ms. Catherine Colonna, Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, with LCI on September 15, 2023, on Franco-Egyptian relations, the situation in Niger, the earthquake in Morocco and the conflict in Ukraine], Vie Publique.fr, September 15, 2023, link.
 Pourquoi les groupes chinois investissent au Maroc [Why Chinese groups invest in Morocco], Radiofrance.fr, September 28, 2023, link.
 Naledi Pandor, Media Briefing by the Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Dr. Naledi Pandor, on South Africa’s state of readiness to host the XV BRICS Summit, Department of International Relations & cooperation, Republic of South Africa, August 7, 2023, link.
 Rachid Meftah, Le Maroc à l'origine du rejet de la candidature de l’Algérie à l’adhésion aux BRICS. Affabulations algériennes toujours aussi abracadabrantes! [Morocco behind the rejection of Algeria's candidacy for BRICS membership. Algerian fabrications as absurd as ever!], Libé.ma, September 5, 2023, link.
 Les BRICS confirment leur attachement à la légalité internationale et aux paramètres onusiens sur la question du Sahara [BRICS confirm their attachment to international legality and UN parameters on the Sahara issue], Lereporter.ma, August 24, 2023, link; Souad Mekkaoui, Le Maroc et le Brics, entre vérité et spéculation [Morocco and the BRICS: Between truth and speculation], Maroc Diplomatique, August 20, 2023, link; Hicham Oukerzaz, Maroc-BRICS : la tentative de récupération malsaine de Pretoria [Morocco-BRICS: Pretoria’s unhealthy attempt at instrumentalization], Le Matin.ma, August 21, 2023, link.
 Takarib maghreb ma’ al-sin.. hal iu’aathiru ‘ala al-’ilaaqaat min al-uilaiaat al-mutahaddida, تقارب مغربي مع الصين.. هل يؤثر على العلاقات من الولايات المتحدة؟, [Will Morocco's rapprochement with China affect relations with the United States?], Al-hurra, January 8, 2023, link.
 Oukerzaz, Morocco-BRICS: Pretoria’s unhealthy attempt at instrumentalization.
 Will Morocco's rapprochement with China affect relations with the United States?.
[22[ Oukerzaz, Morocco-BRICS: Pretoria’s unhealthy attempt at instrumentalization.
 Hamidj Mahri, Al-bricsasia t’azzizu hiamnataha ‘alaa al-Brics, البريكآسيا: آسيا تعزز هيمنتها على البريكس! [BRICSASIA: Asia strengthens its dominance over BRICS], Al Ittihad, August 25, 2023, link.
 The Mediterranean region looks at China, ChinaMed, March 2023, link.