Wang Yi, the Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs, did not deviate from tradition: like every year since 1991, he devoted his January tour to the African continent. After a first stop in Egypt, the head of Chinese diplomacy arrived in Tunisia on the evening of Sunday January 14 for a two-day visit during which he met the president, Kaïs Saïed, in Carthage and held a session working with his Tunisian counterpart, Nabil Ammar.

To celebrate sixty years of relations uniting Tunis and Beijing, the three leaders participated, Monday morning, in the inauguration of the brand new International Academy of Diplomacy in Tunis, a brand new complex, financed by a Chinese donation of 72 million dinars (21.3 million euros) and intended for the training of future Tunisian and African diplomats.

This work is the latest in a long series of buildings whose construction was financed by China: the Sfax hospital center, the cultural and sports centers of Ben Arous and El Menzah 6, in the suburbs of the capital, the National Archives building in Tunis. Added to these are the infrastructures built by Chinese companies, such as the future new Bizerte bridge, the contract for which was won by Sichuan Road and Bridge. At the end of the ceremony, Kaïs Saïed sent an unequivocal message to his guest: “I hope that [the academy] will be followed by many other achievements in my country. »

The country’s fourth trading partner

Tunisia, a country traditionally close to Europe and the United States, represents strong potential for China’s “new silk roads”, an initiative to which it joined in 2018. Beijing notably has its sights set on the port of Bizerte and has expressed interest in a deep-water port project in Enfidha (south of Tunis), but no decision has been taken to date by the Tunisian government.

Beyond these infrastructures, the Chinese influence strategy has expanded in recent years with the opening of a Confucius Institute in Tunis in 2018. And although exchanges between Tunisia and China remain less dense than with other southern Mediterranean countries such as Algeria, Morocco or Egypt, where Beijing has undertaken vast investment programs, the desire for rapprochement is evident.

The Asian giant is today the country’s fourth trading partner behind France, Italy and Germany. Wang Yi’s trip also aims to “confirm the orientations of the country’s foreign policy based on the diversification of partners and openness to new spaces”, the Tunisian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a press release ahead of time. of the visit.

“Find new allies”

A rapprochement all the more appropriate given that relations between Tunisia and its traditional partners in the European Union experienced strong upheavals during the year 2023. They were marked by disagreements over Tunisia’s role in the migration control of its maritime border, despite the signing of the memorandum of understanding in July, and the impasse in the negotiations of an agreement with the International Monetary Fund, to which the 900 million euros of European aid promised in June.

“With the blockages of the European Union, Tunisia needs to find new allies before having a certain balance between the powers. It needs to diversify its partners,” said Oussama Dhiab, researcher in political science and teacher of Mandarin at the University of Carthage.

At the end of December, the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergei Lavrov, also visited the Tunisian capital, advocating a strengthening of cooperation in the areas of “agriculture, cereals, energy, tourism, cultural and scientific cooperation and student exchanges”. He also promised an increase in grain supplies for Tunis while the latter tripled its hydrocarbon imports from Russia in 2023.

Even if the visits coincide, Oussama Dhiab strongly tempers the idea of ​​a turn towards the east. “Political elites and economic actors are strongly integrated into the Mediterranean economy with France and Italy. Tunisia cannot reorient itself so easily,” he assures. According to him, the development of these partnerships serves as “political threats”. Kaïs Saïed, he explains, “needs strong allies to tell the Europeans: “If you do not accept our sovereignty, we can opt for other directions.” »