Italy is challenging the influence of China and Russia in Africa


After the decline of French influence in Africa and the escalation of the Chinese economic and military presence in Africa, Italy is seeking to lead Europe’s return to the continent according to a new development strategy, starting first from North Africa, especially from Algeria.

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni announced, upon her visit to Algeria on January 22 and 23, that she would visit other countries in North Africa, without specifying them.

It’s expected that Libya is an important step for Meloni, especially with the recent agreement reached in energy sector.

Meloni also previously visited Egypt, during the climate summit that the latter hosted in the Sharm al Sheikh resort in November 2022.

In Tunisia, Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani, and Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi, visited the country to discuss the issue of irregular migration.

The priority of North Africa within the Italian plan on the continent was clearly revealed by Meloni when she said, with reference to the Mattie plan, we are in this first phase focusing heavily on the Mediterranean region, and therefore North Africa becomes an absolute priority.

Algeria, from this point of view, is the most strategic and long-lived partner.

Energy, combating irregular migration, and confronting the escalation of Russian and Chinese influence are the main issues that put Arab countries in North Africa at the top of Rome’s priorities.

The new strategy was expressed by saying that the geopolitical interest of Europe as a whole is to be more present in Africa, and also to rein in the influence of Russia and China, which has greatly increased with the presence of clear destabilizing elements there.

Based on this geopolitical threat to Europe, and in particular the presence of the Russian Wagner Company’s elements in Libya not far from the Italian coast, Rome launched the Mattie Plan for Africa to break the hegemony of China and Russia, just as Enrico Mattei, the founder of the Italian energy giant Eni, broke the dominance of seven Western companies, major energy (Seven Sisters) on the oil and gas sector in the world.

The Eni group will be the spearhead of the new Italian development strategy in Africa, which differs from the French model, which is dominated by crude military intervention, and what Meloni considered, when she was a deputy in the Italian parliament, French exploitation of the continent’s resources.

The Italian plan also differs from the US model that adopts a policy of sanctions against Wagner, diplomatic pressure on African partner countries of Russia and China, and humanitarian aid to the continent.

The Italian model is closer to the Chinese policy based on economic partnership, but Rome focuses more on partnership in the field of energy through exploration, production and import of gas and oil, as well as partnership in the renewable energies sector, so that energy is a locomotive for Italian investments in other sectors.

The right-wing government in Italy, along with its Western allies, stands by Ukraine in its war against Russia, threatening its interests in North Africa, especially in Libya, where Eni holds the lion’s share of investments in the hydrocarbon sector, and even has a monopoly on the country’s gas exports.

Many Libyan oil and gas fields in the east and south of the country fall within the sphere of influence of the Wagner Security Company, which makes Italian interests at the mercy of Russia.

It’s too early to talk about the success of the Italian plan in Africa, but Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune detonated a surprise that many media outlets did not stop at, when he announced that trade exchanges between the two countries had increased from 8 to 16 billion US dollars between 2021 and 2022.

The importance of the number doesn’t lie only in the doubling of trade exchanges between the two countries, but more importantly, that Rome has displaced China from the top of Algeria’s largest trading partner.

Since 2013, no country has been able to surpass China in terms of the volume of trade exchanges, which in recent years have exceeded $9 billion, most of which are Chinese exports.

Official figures for the volume of trade exchanges between Algeria and China in 2022 have not yet been announced, but it is unlikely that they would have exceeded the volume of Algerian-Italian exchanges.

Algeria’s policy during Tebboune’s era seeks to reduce the import bill and increase exports, which does not serve the increase in exchanges with China, which is considered the largest supplier to the Algerian market with about $8 billion, compared to about $1 billion of Algerian exports to China.

While Italy is considered the first customer for Algerian gas, and with the doubling of global gas prices in 2022 and Algeria increasing the quantities exported to Italy from 21 to 24 billion cubic meters in the past year, this jump was achieved in trade exchanges, driven by a record rise in Algerian exports to Italy.

And with the two countries agreeing to increase the volume of Algerian gas exports to Italy to reach 28 billion cubic meters annually in 2024, Rome will devote itself as a first partner to Algeria, diverting billions of dollars from China.

And after the completion of the Galician pipeline to transport natural gas between the two countries, as well as green hydrogen and blue and green ammonia, in parallel with the establishment of a line to export electricity from Algeria to Italy, and also the opening of the Italian Fiat factory in Algeria next March, the volume of exchanges between the two countries will reach a difficult ceiling, which China should get over it.

The Chinese model depends on the intensity of exports to the Algerian market, but it is not a big customer for Algerian hydrocarbons (oil and gas), which represents about 88% of Algerian exports, which makes it difficult for China to compete with Italy for the top spot in Algeria’s trading partners.

Nevertheless, China remains Algeria’s first supplier, while Italy is Algeria’s first customer.

It’s unlikely that Beijing will easily throw the towel in front of Rome, especially since it has a comprehensive strategic partnership agreement with Algeria and invests billions of dollars in various sectors such as mining, especially the extraction and processing of phosphate and iron ore, as well as the automobile manufacturing sector, which will spark competition between the two countries.

Italy’s success in displacing China from the top of Algeria’s trading partners encourages it to repeat the same experience with Egypt and Libya from the same gate, increasing its investments and imports of gas and oil from the Arab countries in North Africa.

Italy’s voracious consumption of gas, and Egypt and Libya’s possession of significant gas reserves, prompts it to enhance the investment of its Eni Company in the two countries, whether in terms of exploration, production, and import as well.

China doesn’t represent a major challenge to Italy in Libya, given that the instability of the security situation in the latter did not encourage Beijing to throw its weight in its market, not to mention Eni’s domination of the hydrocarbons sector in Libya, given that Italy is its old colonizer.

However, the biggest challenge for Rome is Russia and its security arm, Wagner, which poses a threat to its investments in the oil sector in Libya, and to the flow of gas from the Green Stream pipeline towards it.

Italy doesn’t have many options to uproot Wagner from Libya, but it is working in coordination with its European and US allies, as well as its regional partners such as Türkiye, Algeria and Egypt, to besiege Wagner’s influence and push it to withdraw from the country.

As for Egypt, China represents a real challenge to Italy, given that Beijing is Cairo’s first trading partner, and Rome is seeking to repeat the same experience with Algeria, by expanding the investments of Italy’s Eni Company in exploration, gas production and import.

Suffice it to mention that Eni discovered the Egyptian al Zohr field in the Mediterranean, and signed an agreement with it last April to increase gas production in the short term and provide shipments of liquefied gas for export to Italy or Europe.

However, the large volume of gas consumption in Egypt allows only limited quantities of gas to be exported to Italy, which means that repeating the Algerian experience is difficult in the short term, unless new discoveries and greater production are achieved, and this is what the Italian Eni is working on.

An increase in Italian imports of gas from North Africa, especially Algeria, Libya and Egypt, would free the country from dependence on Russian gas, and strengthen the commercial partnership with these three countries to reduce Chinese influence.

As for Tunisia and Morocco, China and Russia don’t pose a major challenge to Italy compared to Algeria and Egypt, which have historical economic and security relations.

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