Hu trip shows China wooing Africa

President has been promising economic partnerships across continent

February 07, 2007|By Robyn Dixon | Robyn Dixon,LOS ANGELES TIMES

PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA -- Chinese President Hu Jintao pledged to boost his country's booming relationship with Africa yesterday, as he brought a 12-day Africa tour to the continent's economic powerhouse.

Hu's trip, in which he has lavished promises of economic partnership on a half-dozen nations but steered clear of controversial political issues, has become a symbol of China's intense courtship of Africa.

The growing relationship has been viewed with trepidation by many in the West. U.S. officials, who see Africa as an alternative source of oil to the Middle East, are worried particularly about competition with China for the continent's resources.

The Bush administration has sharply increased aid to Africa over the past several years, particularly to combat AIDS. So far, the Chinese approach, focusing on economic cooperation, appears to be gaining ground.

Bush has not visited Africa since his first term. By contrast, top Chinese officials have relayed across the continent every few months, winning points with no-strings-attached promises of economic support.

"China's charm offensive in Africa is second to none," said Philip Alves, an economist with the South African Institute of International Affairs.

"They do a lot of stuff in Africa. They don't see Africa as a burden. They see it as an opportunity. They don't see African leaders and hopeless and corrupt. They see them as equals worthy of respect. They've tried very hard, and I think that's why they're winning friends in Africa."

By contrast, U.S. ambassador Eric Bost has complained publicly about the difficulty he has had in arranging meetings with South African government officials.

Many African leaders and politicians resent the way U.S. and European leaders try to tie loans and aid to human rights, democracy and governance issues. They increasingly are turning to China as the answer to their problems.

Yesterday, Hu emphasized both China's aid and the absence of strings as he tried to spin criticism by U.S. officials.

Last week, U.S. officials said Hu had sent a "mixed messages" about the humanitarian catastrophe in Darfur during his visit to Sudan, where he had promised aid to the Sudanese government but failed to publicly press for an end to the fighting.

The U.S. has described attacks on villages by militias with links to the Sudanese government as "genocide" and has pressed for sanctions against Sudanese officials. China has blocked sanctions in the U.N. Security Council.

Hu said that he had raised Darfur with the Sudanese president, Omar el Bashir, and that he hoped the issue would be settled peacefully.

At a joint news conference yesterday with South African President Thabo Mbeki, Hu contrasted the U.S. approach with his own.

"The relationship between Africa and China is based on equality, mutual trust and win-win outcomes," he said, standing under a purple sky in Pretoria's sticky evening warmth. "China doesn't interfere in other countries' internal affairs."

China is Sudan's biggest investor and buys two-thirds of its oil. During his visit there, Hu offered a $12.9 million interest-free loan to build a presidential palace for Sudan, wrote off $70 million in debts to China, reduced import tariffs on Sudanese goods and offered a $77.4 million loan for infrastructure and a grant of $40 million.

Zambia has been another beneficiary. In its capital, Lusaka, Hu promised an "economic partnership zone" in the country's copper mining belt, designed to attract $800 million in Chinese investment and create 60,000 jobs.

Hu also offered assistance to smaller African countries including Namibia, an arid country on the Atlantic with a population of 2 million, which is rich in diamonds, uranium, cobalt and zinc. There, he signed off on a $4.2 million grant and a $5 million interest-free loan and eased debt payments.

The only African leader to have raised questions on China's direction in Africa is South Africa's Mbeki.

Last year, he warned that Africa must guard against a "colonial" relationship in which China would extract African resources and send them back as manufactured goods instead of investing in African manufacturing.

South Africa is concerned about its trade deficit with China and is critical of the low levels of Chinese investment.

Robyn Dixon writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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