China Boosts Africa Role

President Hu Jintao counters China's critics with Africa tour, experts say.
By Michael Lelyveld

BOSTON--With a sweep through four African countries in six days, President Hu Jintao has tried to highlight China's role as a leader in the developing world, analysts say.

On Feb. 12-17, Hu crisscrossed the continent on a tour through Mali, Senegal, Tanzania, and Mauritius following a three-day visit to Saudi Arabia, China's largest oil supplier.

Unlike Saudi Arabia, which accounted for $41 billion in bilateral trade last year, the African nations on Hu's circuit are smaller factors in China's economic sphere.

Taken together, the four countries represent only about $2 billion in trade with China, or less than one-fiftieth of the country's $106.8 billion in Africa trade, according to official data cited by state media.

But China's influence may be proportionally larger because of its funding for high-profile projects in these countries, where soft loans and investment go a long way.

In Mali, for example, Hu laid the first stone for a $90-million "Friendship Bridge" over the Niger River in the capital Bamako, calling it China's largest gift to West Africa.

In Senegal, Hu visited a new national theater being built with Chinese aid and signed five trade pacts. The stop was seen as a reward for Senegal's decision to withdraw recognition from Taiwan in 2005.

In Tanzania, Hu officially handed over a $40-million national sports stadium, the largest China-funded project since the Tanzania-Zambia railway in the 1970s.

In the island nation of Mauritius, Hu agreed to lend $260 million for airport expansion, adding to a $730-million trade zone pledged by China last year.

Smaller economies

With the breadth of trade and infrastructure deals in the smaller economies, officials have tried to counter charges that China has pursued resource colonialism and oil interests in other countries including Sudan and Angola.

"You've noticed that the four African countries the president will visit are not famous for natural resources," Xu Jinghu, director of the Foreign Ministry's Africa department, told the state-controlled China Daily before the trip.

Hu also delivered the message that China will not turn away from its presence in Africa during tough economic times.

"During times of adversity, it is all the more important for China and Africa to support each other, and work and tide over the difficulties together," he told an audience in the Tanzanian capital of Dar es Salaam.

In interviews with Radio Free Asia, analysts saw significance in both the focus and timing of Hu's trip across Africa.

Adam Segal, senior fellow for China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, said the country has faced criticism from rights groups about its resource-driven policies and relations with repressive nations like Zimbabwe.

"They do want to send a message that they have a broader engagement that is a political engagement, not just natural-resource-driven," Segal said.

Influence promoted

Hu has also used the trip to promote China's international standing and influence among developing nations, both as a funding source and a political power, said Segal.

"China already thinks of itself as a leader of the developing world, as a leader of the south," he said. "China looks at all of these small countries and thinks about voting blocs in the United Nations and other international organizations. That all plays into China's sense of itself as a kind of model and representative for the developing world."

The timing of Hu's trip is probably not coincidental, said Segal, given the expectation that Washington will be paying more attention to Africa during President Barack Obama's term.

"They see that the Obama administration ... is going to engage with Africa and the developing world more generally on those countries' own terms," he said.

Joshua Kurlantzick, visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said China is trying to send a message that it cares about more than big power politics and trade in the developing world.

"It's more in line with the idea that China is representing itself as a different sort of power, a different sort of friend," Kurlantzick told RFA. "They'd like to see themselves as a leader in Africa, at least as a player on the continent."

Kurlantzick said China is becoming more sensitive to criticism that it has pursued resources and fueled corruption in oil-producing countries like Angola with billions of dollars in unrestricted loans. Aid to smaller economies is seen as improving China's image and overcoming reactions to such practices.

"I don't think it's altruism," said Kurlantzick. "A better image allows China to make economic gains more easily."

'Dumping ground'

China has also faced criticism about tying project support to employment of Chinese labor in African countries, reducing the benefits to the countries themselves. Kurlantzick said China has been trying to counter the complaints.

"I think they're beginning to sink in," he said. "That doesn't mean they're necessarily going to do anything about it, but it's definitely beginning to sink in."

Hu's trip through the four countries has not been free of criticism. In a radio report from Tanzania before Hu's visit, the Marketplace feature of American Public Media said the country has been used as a "dumping ground" and distribution point for Chinese-made counterfeit goods. Markets are filled with bogus items from electronics and accessories to

"As much as 20 percent of goods in the country are cheap look-alikes. And what's happening here tells a bigger story of counterfeiters making a quick buck off the world's poor," the broadcast said.

The visit to Mauritius has also raised concerns among commentators in India, who say that China is seeking a security presence in the Indian Ocean.

Writing on the website, one columnist cited China's argument that the visit to smaller African countries was not about resources, suggesting it was about arms sales, defense and security instead.

"As one of the strongest supporters of the Chinese naval operations, Hu understands the importance of the Indian Ocean island states for Beijing's new maritime strategy," wrote C. Raja Mohan, a professor at Nanyang Technological University of Singapore. "Without special arrangements for access, its navy's ability to operate in the Indian Ocean would be severely constrained."

In December, China launched its first naval mission to the region in modern history, joining international efforts to fight piracy off the coast of Somalia.


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