Defense Secretary Mark Esper met with AlgerianÂ President Abdelmadjid Tebboune todayÂ in the first visit of a Pentagon chief to the North African country since 2006.
It was also the highest-level US diplomatic meeting with the new Algerian president since longtime ruler Abdelaziz Bouteflika was ousted amid popular protests last year.
The meeting came a day after Esper signed a 10-year road mapÂ for defense cooperationÂ agreementÂ withÂ Tunisia’s defense ministerÂ and one day before anÂ expected stop in Morocco. The trip is the latest sign that the United StatesÂ sees strategic opportunity in bolstering its partnerships in North Africa amid concerns in Washington over Russia’sÂ and Chinaâ€™s growing influence in the region.
â€œToday, our strategic competitors China and Russia continue to intimidate and coerce their neighbors while expanding their authoritarian influence worldwide, including on this continent,â€ Esper said during a ceremony in Carthage on Wednesday.
â€œAt the same time, violent extremists continue to pose a threat not only to regional stability, but also to our homelands. The United Statesâ€™ enduring partnership with like-minded countries â€” including here in North Africa â€” is key to addressing these challenges.â€
â€œAs the global partner of choice, the United States will continue to deepen our alliances and partnerships across the continent, including with Tunisia, where your democratic government and sovereignty have made much of our work in this region possible,â€ Esper said.
â€œWe look forward to expanding this relationship to help Tunisia protect its maritime ports and land borders, to deter terrorismÂ and to keep the corrosive efforts of autocratic regimes out of your country,â€ he said.
Esperâ€™s visit to Algeria came a week after the head of the US Africa Command, Gen. Stephen Townsend, met with TebbouneÂ in Algiers to discuss increased military cooperation.
Why it matters: The ouster of the Bouteflika government has presented the United StatesÂ with an opportunity.
Situated on the Mediterranean between war-torn Libya and increasingly unstable Sahel countries such as Mali, Algeria has relied on Russian military hardware for decades, and far outpaces its neighbors in military spending â€”â€“ even Egypt, which has more than doubleÂ its population.
If approved in a referendum scheduled for November, proposed changes to Algeriaâ€™s constitution could permit the countryâ€™s forces to be deployed outside its borders, allowing it to partake in multinational missions and training.
Last year Esper suggested the Pentagon was looking at cutting AFRICOMâ€™s already relatively slim resources to focus on deterring Russia and China. The Pentagon now says it is looking to build up its partnerships in North AfricaÂ amid concerns aboutÂ Russia’s growing military footprint on the Mediterranean.
Townsend appealed to Congress in January, arguing that the Trump administrationâ€™s new strategic priority of countering Russia and China must be dealt with on a global stage and at the local level, particularly in Africa, where both Beijing and Moscow have shown signs of strategic interests.
Whatâ€™s next: Townsend travels to US ally Morocco on Friday.