By Gordon G. Chang (*)
Xi Jinping, fresh from diplomatic triumphs in the Persian Gulf, South America, and Europe, is turning his attention to other areas, including four countries in North Africa.
In North Africa, Morocco is locked into a decades-long struggle with Algeria and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguiet el-Hamra and Rio de Oro. The group, better known as the Polisario Front, is essentially an Algerian proxy that controls the SADR, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.
“Beijing is channeling money through Iran and its proxies to Morocco’s enemies, especially the Polisario,” Jonathan Bass, who follows China in the region for energy consultant InfraGlobal Partners, told Newsweek. “Xi Jinping is fueling an armed insurrection he hopes to get credit for ending, on terms favorable to enemies of America and friends of Chinese interests.”
Not so, says Suzanne Scholte, co-chair of the Campaign to End the Moroccan Occupation of the Western Sahara. “The Sahrawi founded a republic with a constitution modeled after the U.S. Constitution,” she said to this publication. “The People’s Republic of China has funded their colonizers, the Kingdom of Morocco. They’ve never helped the Polisario.”
At stake is the barren Western Sahara, claimed by both Morocco, which calls it the Southern Provinces, and the SADR. Morocco exercises control over the disputed area. Algeria backs the SADR and the Polisario with money, weapons, and military training.
There has long been a bloody struggle over Western Sahara, especially since 1975. Spain controlled the territory until that year, when it handed the area over to Morocco and Mauritania. The following year, the Polisario declared the establishment of the SADR. The United Nations that year affirmed the right to self-determination for the Sahrawi people. A referendum for control of the territory has been postponed and thus far never held.
The SADR is a member of the African Union and is recognized as sovereign by 46 states. The UN recognizes the Polisario Front as the representative of the Sahrawi.
Morocco’s claim to Western Sahara is recognized by 65 countries, including the United States as of 2020.
Some 23 states have consulates in Western Sahara. The U.S. in 2020 agreed to open one in Dakhla, a port in that territory and a strategic spot on the Atlantic Ocean. But so far, Washington has not done so.
Debates over sovereignty are endless. Whom should the United States back?
The argument of self-determination, pushed by Algeria and the Polisario Front, is emotionally powerful. But Algeria, an increasingly hard-line state, is in no position to promote individual rights. The Sahrawi, on the other hand, self-identify as a people and have, at least at first glance, a legitimate claim to self-determination.
Yet it’s not clear that the Sahrawi are entitled to a state of their own. If the Polisario Front succeeds in splitting Morocco, what other groups would then be entitled to form their own state? Should Algeria be divided as well, in order to recognize MAK, the Movement for Self-Determination of Kabylie, a Berber secessionist force?
The reality is that the people of the region—and of the world—would not be better off if the western portion of North Africa, a region of the once-nomadic Berbers, splits into ever-smaller countries and microstates.
“Western Sahara would not be a sustainable state,” Thomas Riley, America’s ambassador to Morocco from 2003 to 2009, told Newsweek. Morocco is stable and peaceful, but Algeria and the rest of the region are particularly troubled, he points out. The leaders of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, if they were in fact to govern, would have great difficulty escaping the problems plaguing neighbors to their east and south. And it is hard to see how the Sahrawi people would benefit from living in perpetual turbulence.
There is an even more consequential geopolitical element, as well. It is not a good sign that SADR’s main backer, Algeria, has dangerous backers of its own: Russia and China. “Being in Algeria is like living in Russia and China,” Riley says. “It’s no wonder the Russians and Chinese feel comfortable there.”
“In a world now dividing into camps, Washington should back friends and not enemies,” Bass, the regional energy consultant, argues.
Riley agrees. “Western-leaning Morocco is a natural partner of America, and Russia and China-leaning Algeria is not.”
The U.S. finds itself increasingly hard-pressed to maintain peace and stability across the globe, while Russia and China are upending the international system in real time. The world does not need another crisis, and it would not take much for Moscow and Beijing to create one if America were to walk away from long-time ally Morocco.
China, through Iran, is flooding the region with arms, Bass notes. “If successful in breaking apart Morocco,” he tells Newsweek, “Beijing could then move on Libya and Tunisia in a bid for control of all North Africa.”
“The Polisario are the good guys,” Scholte, also president of the Defense Forum Foundation, maintains.
There is dispute about that, but there is no dispute that the fulfillment of the group’s aspirations would lead to one more geopolitical crisis at a time when the international system is already on the brink. The U.S. and the broader international community have an interest in stability, and thus in Morocco maintaining control.
(*) Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China. Follow him on Twitter: @GordonGChang.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own. This article first appeared in newsweek.