Wen Jiabao, Chinese prime minister, launched a seven- nation tour of Africa at the weekend.

He will showcase China’s growing involvement on the continent as it seeks raw material supplies for its booming economy and new markets for its manufactured products.

Africa supplies nearly a third of China’s oil needs, with a surge in China’s energy imports from the continent contributing to a near tripling of trade between it and the continent in 2005.

Economists say the growing tendency of African countries to source cheaper manufactured products from Asia in general and China in particular has helped sub-Saharan economies turn trade deficits into surplus at a time of soaring prices for their own commodity exports.

But the steady expansion of Chinese ties with the continent since President Hu Jintao launched an aggressive new policy to strengthen relations in 2005, has raised concern among human rights activists, who fear this has buttressed some of the continent’s most repressive regimes – notably in Sudan and Zimbabwe.

After meeting Hosni Mubarak, Egyptian president, yesterday, Mr Wen stressed that China’s policy on the continent was based on “mutual respect, equality, mutual benefit and non-interference in others’ internal affairs”.

He also met Ghanian president John Kufuor and committed China to a low-interest loan of $66m to fund an upgrade of Ghana’s telecommunications and other projects.

His tour will also take him to Angola, South Africa, Congo-Brazzaville, Uganda and Tanzania.

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