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CHINA: Winning Friends and Influence in Africa

Antoaneta Bezlova

BEIJING, Nov 1 2006 (IPS) - Accused of supporting corrupt African regimes to facilitate its imports of oil and raw materials from the resource-rich continent, China is staging a grand diplomatic forum to defend its dealings with Africa.

Leaders and officials from 48 African countries will attend the two-day Beijing summit this week meant to highlight China’s role of benefactor in Africa. Beijing hopes to promote its development model and foreign policy credo, scoring diplomatic marks as well as winning trade opportunities.

“This is a milestone event in China-Africa history,” Xu Jinghu, director-general of the Department of African Affairs of the Foreign Ministry told the media ahead of the Nov. 3-5 summit.

While the forum officially celebrates the 50th anniversary of the beginning of China’s diplomatic ties with the continent, it is the last six years of booming bilateral trade and intensified cooperation that provide the background for the meeting.

Driven by its need for ever-increasing quantities of raw materials China has built a significant presence in Africa, investing about 6.72 billion US dollars by the end of last year, and building ports, railways, roads and dams. It has used soft loans and millions of aid to secure natural resources – oil and precious metals, to feed its fast-growing economy.

China imported 38 million tonnes of oil from Africa last year, making up about 30 per cent of the country’s total oil imports. The bilateral trade has jumped from 10 billion US dollars in 2000 to 40 billion last year.

But this unbridled expansion has drawn criticism for overlooking human rights abuses in countries like Sudan and has been described by detractors as a wave of “neo-colonialism”.

As Sudan’s largest foreign investor and an important oil client, China has tried to block UN efforts to impose sanctions on the regime and halt the violence in the war-torn country.

In August, Beijing abstained from a vote on a United Nations resolution that would allow the world body to assume control over the peacekeeping mission in Darfur from the African Union whose mandate was to expire on September 30.

China has rejected criticism that its involvement in the African country has hindered international efforts to stop the bloodshed that has taken some 200,000 lives over the past three years. By contrast, Beijing asserts that adhering to its diplomatic line of non-interference in other countries’ affairs has helped their right to self-determination.

“Chinese investment in Africa has promoted economic growth, increased job opportunities and improved living standards,” Wei Jianguo, vice-minister of commerce told reporters last week. “It has greatly benefited local people and has been very popular among them”.

To accuse China of “neo-colonialism” when appraising its involvement in the African continent is to use “cold-war mentality”, argues Shen Jiru, an international affairs expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. He points out that China has recently forgiven 10 billion worth of yuan-denominated loans. “What kind of neo-colonialism is that?”

Multilateral bodies like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have raised concerns that lending by China to poor countries that have recently benefited from debt relief could drive them into debt again.

But rather than defend its record on this score Beijing hopes that the China-Africa summit would provide a public forum for African leaders to voice their support for Beijing in person.

“We have nothing to lose but our imperialist chains,” the Zimbabwean president, Robert Mugabe, was quoted as saying by the Xinhua News Agency.

Securing the presence of so many African leaders at a single event – the first of such magnitude that China has ever hosted, is already seen here as a big diplomatic success. The five nations in the 53-strong African Union, which don’t have diplomatic relations with China but maintain ties with Taiwan, have also been invited to send observers.

The meeting would cement a “tacit understanding” that China has with the 48 African nations to support each other in the United Nations, according to professor Xu Tiebing of China Media University in Beijing.

“The backing of these African countries in international areas, and particularly in the United Nations is of great importance to China,” Xu said.

China claims Taiwan, home to 23 million people, as part of its territory and has vowed to reunite it by force should the island declare formal independence. In the past five years China has used financial incentives and diplomatic means to persuade Taiwan’s African allies to switch allegiance to Beijing.

Since hosting the first China-African summit on cooperation in Beijing in 2000, the number of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies in Africa has decreased from eight to five. Those five are Burkina Faso, Swaziland, Malawi, Gambia and Sao Tome and Principe.

“Because of its growing international clout China is emerging as the winner in this battle of interests,” said He Wenping, an African export at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

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