China’s path through Africa not all smooth

Hu Jintao, China’s president, has arrived in Cameroon on the first leg of an eight-nation tour of Africa, in which he is set to dole out soft loans ‘without political conditions’, according to the Chinese commerce ministry.

The ministry’s restatement on the eve of Mr Hu’s departure of China’s well-settled position on aid was a pointed reminder that Beijing will continue to carve out its own path in Africa despite rising criticism in the west.

By the time Mr Hu completes his trip, Beijing’s top leaders will, in a 13-month period, have notched up visits to nearly half of the 48 African countries, out of a total of 53, with which it has diplomatic ties.

The tour builds on the summit of African leaders he hosted in Beijing last year, the biggest diplomatic event of its kind in China’s recent history.

China’s methodical courting of African states has so far achieved its short-term aims of securing oil in Sudan, Nigeria and Angola, copper in Zambia, uranium in Namibia and a range of resources in South Africa.

Trade with the continent had soared 40 per cent year on year to a record $55.5bn in 2006, the commerce ministry reported this week.

Numerous headline deals will be agreed in the days ahead as Mr Hu makes his way through Cameroon where he arrived on Tuesday, Sudan, Liberia, Zambia, Namibia, South Africa, Mozambique and the Seychelles.

Mr Hu will carry the promise of soft loans worth $3bn, partially fulfilling the promise made at the Beijing summit to offer $5bn in loans and credit to Africa in coming years, and a doubling of aid by 2009.

But even amid this apparent amity, China’s diplomacy has not been cost-free, nor has it been able to smooth every path.

China still dismisses western criticism, ranging from allegations of unfair exploitation of resources to the undermining of painfully negotiated agreements among traditional donors about how to manage new loans to Africa.

Zhai Jun, a senior foreign ministry official, said the fact heads of state or senior officials from the African nations visited Beijing in November showed they acknowledged the “mutual benefits” of relations with China. “Why would they come to a country that was looting resources from them?” he said.

China has come under increasing pressure to back international efforts to force Sudan – Mr Hu is expected in Khartoum on Friday – to accept United Nations peacekeepers into the country to halt mass killings in the western Darfur region.

China has not budged publicly from its position that the crisis could be solved through negotiations.

While Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s president, has heaped nothing but praise on Beijing, there are increasing signs the Chinese are starting to get a mixed reception in other countries.

In Zambia, where China has significant copper mining interests, Michael Sata, a presidential candidate, last year threatened to chase away Chinese investors if elected. He lost the election.

Chinese workers in Nigeria were kidnapped this month and, with thousands more being sent to Africa to build infrastructure projects, the foreign ministry fears many more such incidents. In South Africa, China’s biggest trade partner last year on the continent, industry and government officials have blamed local unemployment problems on cheap Chinese clothing exports.

Andrea Goldstein, a Sino-Africa researcher with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development said low-cost Chinese exports to Africa could develop into a key source of tension over time.

“If and when Chinese products start being seen as unsafe and people suffer as a result,” he said, “a real backlash may erupt.”

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