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Foreign Policy

Kais Saied in Beijing: A New Strategic Partnership in the Arab World

Jul 05, 2024
  • Elyssa Koepp

    Tunisian-German-American specialist, Research Assistant at Center for Constitutional Studies and Democratic Development

Tunisian President Kais Xi Jinping.jpeg

President Xi Jinping holds talks with Tunisian President Kais Saied in Beijing on May 31, 2024.

In May 2024, Tunisian President Kais Saied traveled to China, at the invitation of President Xi Jinping, to attend the 10th ministerial meeting of the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum. Other Arab leaders present included the king of Bahrain and the Emirati and Egyptian presidents.

President Saied’s visit to China challenges the efforts made by Tunisia’s Western allies to counter Saied’s distancing from his European and American partners, a trend accelerated since he introduced a new constitution in July 2022 that restored a presidential system with increased executive power relative to the legislative arms. The visit also underscores China's growing role in the region and Tunisia specifically, mirroring its rise in Saudi Arabia where it has surpassed the United States as the country’s primary trading partner.

Although there is no visible alienation between Tunisia and the European Union, the gradual distancing between Tunisia and the United States has become increasingly apparent.

Following Saied’s dismissal of parliament in July 2021, the U.S. Congress voted to halt the military and civilian financial aid package to Tunisia. Moreover, the absence of shared areas of concern, such as the issue of migration that binds Tunisia to its European neighbors despite political differences - underscored by the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding in 2023 with members of the European Commission - has widened the gap with its American partners. This distancing is also apparent in Saied’s handling of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) deal. In November 2022, although Tunisia had advanced to the final stages of the 1.9-billion-dollar IMF deal negotiated to help curb the country’s growing economic crisis, Saied publicly stated his “rejection of Western diktats.” This stance stalled any imminent agreement, going against the will of his government.

The same month, the Tunisian president reinstated diplomatic relations with Syria and reintroduced negotiations with Algeria, two traditionally non-aligned partners to the Western counterparts. During Saied’s official visit to China, President Xi Jinping praised Saied’s commitment to territorial integrity and the principle of non-involvement in state affairs, acknowledging his efforts to maintain independence over his national decision-making. Two weeks before his visit to China, on May 15th, 2024, President Kais Saied summoned foreign ambassadors to protest external interference in Tunisia’s affairs following criticism from the European Union, France, and the United States over the recent arrests of lawyers and journalists, calling it an attack on the country’s legal institution. The president referenced the preamble of the Tunisian constitution which states that "the Tunisian people reject any interference in its internal affairs."

In addition to highlighting Tunisia’s departure from reform-based partnerships towards non-interference, Saied’s rapprochement to China also spotlights the significance of alignment on key foreign policy areas. The events of October 7th, 2023, marked the second significant strain on the relationship between Tunisia and the United States since July 25th, 2021, showcasing the weight Saied’s disapproval of Biden's foreign policy towards Israel has on his choice of partners.

While countries such as France, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and the United States favorability levels significantly dropped in the aftermath of the Hamas attack on Israel and the global positioning on the conflict, the perception of China remained high, as highlighted by the Arab Barometer Perceptions Study of 2023. Tunisian Foreign Minister Nabil Ammar held telephone discussions on October 15th, 2023, with several European counterparts, including the Italian, Portuguese, Belgian, Spanish, European Union and British foreign affairs representatives, to encourage them to address what he called their “political and moral responsibilities” and impose an immediate cessation of the aggressions in Gaza. Saied and President Xi align on the question of Palestine, and during the opening speech of the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum, President Xi pledged additional humanitarian assistance to the post-war reconstruction effort and the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East.

While China scores high in public approval with 71 percent of Tunisians perceiving it as the most favorable country for international relations, Chinese-Tunisian economic relations remain relatively limited. As of 2018, China was ranked 27th among the countries investing in Tunisia through foreign direct investments. During his visit, the Tunisian President emphasized the country's interest in expanding partnerships with Chinese companies by touring Huawei's corporate headquarters and BYD Company's offices, highlighting two key industries for development: the digital sector and electric vehicle industry.

China's current presence in the country is apparent to Tunisian citizens through three significant projects, fostering the positive perception of China as a strategic partner.

The first is in the capital, Tunis, where China financed the International Diplomatic Academy de Tunis, the only diplomatic academic institution built with the help of the Chinese government in any Arab country. On January 15th, 2024, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi inaugurated this new diplomatic academy and praised over 60 years of diplomatic relations between both states dating back to their first agreement in 1958. This symbolic gesture to their longstanding friendship was picked up by Kais Saied during his visit to China where he toured Huawei Library's Tunisia pavilion showcasing the history of their partnership and Tunisian gifts to the Chinese state throughout the years.

Another Chinese-funded project in Tunisia is the construction of the sport and cultural complex in Ben Arous, a neighborhood near the capital, developed by the China Machinery Industry Construction Group. A donation by the Chinese state of 104 million Tunisian Dinars, or 36.6 million US dollars, the project covers over 22 000 square meters and includes revamped sports facilities as well as auditoriums and accommodations for cultural events.

In December 2020, Sfax, the second largest city in the country, witnessed the inauguration of a University Hospital Center following an accord signed between both governments in 2014, in which both President Kais Saied and the Chinese Ambassador to Tunisia were present. The hospital witnessed an increase in bed capacity, intensive care units, emergency departments, medical-surgical complexes, and intensive care services with oxygen outlets which played a crucial role in addressing the growing healthcare demands following the COVID-19 pandemic.

Saied’s historic visit to Beijing for the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum highlights the president’s will to move towards non-interventionist partners, and the added role his firm stance on Gaza is playing in accelerating the already growing alienation of its Western partners such as the United States. Tunisia’s rapprochement with China falls within a larger alignment of Arab states and the Global South with China and the worsening perception of the United States in the Arab world. Although the visit did not yield any concrete economic investments for Tunisia, the trip consolidated the vested interest of both parties for increased cooperation and set the groundwork for a new strategic partnership, adding to China’s fourteen existing partnerships with Arab states.

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