01/03/2006, 00.00
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China-Africa ties grow and tip global balance

Beijing imports oil, metals and agricultural products too. It makes funds available and exports merchandise, manpower and technical expertise. Political ties are intense, even in the face of opposition from Europe and the US. More than 700 Chinese companies are at work in 49 African countries.

Beijing (AsiaNews) – Links between China and African countries are growing fast and making an impact on global equilibrium. China, as hungry for raw materials as ever, is keen on Africa, not least because other industrialized states pose only minor competition. Africa is desperate for overseas investments and technical expertise.

Western firms consider investing in Africa to be a risky business, because of the weakness and corruption of governments and frequent wars. China, however, wants raw materials (oil, diamonds, gold, platinum, iron and also cotton and tobacco.) Besides, it is looking for markets for its products and even exports manpower and technical expertise, all contributing to increasing political impact. In 2003, trade between Beijing and the continent amounted to 18.5 billion US dollars, an increase of more than 50% over 2002. In 2004, China imported African merchandise worth 15.7 billion US dollars and exported products for 13.8 billion.

More than 700 Chinese firms operate in 49 African countries.

In 2004, 25% of oil imported by Beijing came from Sudan, Chad, Libya, Algeria, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and Angola. China imports a quarter of Angola's oil, and 60% of that in Sudan. In these countries, oil is a major chunk of their gross domestic product and its trade has important consequences on internal policy and social development. In the agricultural sector, China acquires merchandise and exports technical expertise and capital. In Zambia, for example, the fruit and vegetable market is practically covered by products of agricultural firms run by Chinese.

African countries appreciate Beijing because of the seriousness and rapidity with which it follows through trade agreements, and because they need everything. China supplies the money to set up infrastructures: trains, roads, buildings, electrical and telephone lines, and also mining prospects and oil refineries. In exchange, they often ask that works are undertaken by Chinese firms.

Political influence is considered necessary to safeguard one's economic interests. In international organizations, Beijing often supports lesser developed countries rather than industrialized states. In Sudan, where more than 10,000 Chinese work, it is said that Beijing, to "protect" its oil wells, gave economic and military aid to the government during the civil war and genocide in Darfur.

China opposed sanctions called for by the United Nations (UN), threatening to use its power of veto. In Angola, Chinese aid allowed the government to refuse a proposal of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) which asked for international verification of oil contracts and political reform in exchange for loans. Angola's corrupt system of power benefits the restricted elite leaving 13 million people in poverty.

Experts say that between 1998 and 2000, Beijing sold arms worth one billion dollars to both Eritrea and Ethiopia: the war between the two countries killed tens of thousands of people. Robert Mugabe, president of Zimbabwe turned to China when he was isolated by western countries: in 2004, Beijing invested 600 million dollars in the country and supplied military radio equipment used to block transmissions by opposition parties.

Many analysts said Beijing does not concern itself with the use made by States of money it gives them, allowing corrupt governments to siphon off sums received, while western states would often expect to know how the money is used.

Beijing sent peace contingents to the Democratic Republic of Congo and Liberia, and supplied Mali and Angola with helicopters, Namibia and Sierra Leone with arms and Mozambique with army uniforms. African countries, said Olusegun Obasanjo, the Nigerian president, during a visit to Beijing in April, would appreciate the intervention of China to resolve their disputes, as well as "to increase collaboration in trade, investments and agriculture".

China is active in setting up bodies to implement trade links with African states. At the first China-African Cooperation Forum, held in Beijing in October 2000, 80 ministers from 46 out of 53 African states participated. At the end, China announced that it wanted to reduce the debt of African countries by 10 billion yuan (around 1.2 billion dollars). The sum was negligible (0.3% of the total African debt) but the gesture had a great impact. China also removed import taxes on merchandise from 25 poor African countries. It even has commercial links with countries which recognize Taiwan. In November 2004, the China-Africa Trade Council was set up, promoted by Beijing and by the UN Development Programme, to help private Chinese investments in Cameroon, Ghana, Mozambique, Nigeria, South Africa and Tanzania. In 2006 the third Cooperation Forum will take place in Beijing, with many heads of state attending.

Since 2003, South Africa has become the favorite tourist destination of Chinese tour operators. Chinese firms are active on the continent to set up hotels, restaurants and other tourist and recreational structures.

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