01/31/2007, 00.00
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Hu in Cameroon today to sign “usual” trade agreements

Following a well-established script, China’s leaders are travelling Africa to sign already negotiated agreements. World media are focusing on the Sudan leg of the eight nation trip, expecting a possible breakthrough on the Darfur issue. But to understand Beijing’s goals, all stops must be scrutinised.

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to Africa began last night in Cameroon where Cameroonian Prime Minister Ephraim Inoni greeted him at Yaoundé International Airport. Tonight he will meet Cameroonian President Paul Biya at a gala dinner in his honour. And this morning Messrs Hu and Biya will sign cooperation agreements. The Chinese president will then visit a Chinese-funded hospital and a sports ground being built by a Chinese firm in the West African state. 

Bilateral economic cooperation has also scored rapid growth. In the first 11 months of 2006, trade volume between China and Cameroon amounted to US$ 338 million, or a 101 percent increase over the corresponding period of the previous year.

This is the first visit by a Chinese president to Cameroon but Mr Hu’s second trip to Africa in nine months, proof that Africa, one of its main suppliers of oil and raw materials, is of great interest to China.

Local media have covered China’s economic growth, touting it as a model for a developing country and emphasising how in 30 years China reached the point of competing with the United States. They have said much less however about the absence of democracy and the serious pollution problem that China’s economic development has produced.

But not all is well. China has come in for some criticism, accused of establishing relations with African countries that are tantamount to “economic colonialism” based on the export of African raw materials and the import of Chinese manufactured goods that stifle domestic industries as South African President Thabo Mbeki back in December.

Chinese firms have made considerable investments in Africa but largely employ Chinese nationals, thus provoking the ire of locals who endure high levels of unemployment.

China also lends money. As the Ministry of Commerce web site indicates: "The preferential loans provided by China carry no political conditions."

African leaders like no-strings-attached loans unlike those from the World Bank and Western governments which try to tie them to the respect of human rights or prevent the money from falling into the pockets of local elites.

On Monday, Hu announced that China would write off the debts of 33 heavily indebted African countries which matured at the end of 2005.

World media attention will focus on the Sudan leg of Hu’s tour, which starts on February 2. Many hope he might achieve some positive results concerning the Darfur genocide. Hitherto China had protected Sudan against UN sanctions.

At one level Beijing welcomes the attention given to this issue because it pushes other issues into the background. If its diplomacy proves successful it would give China greater clout on the world stage and represents a personal success for Mr Hu.

In fact, before Mr Hu set off on his tour, Assistant Foreign Minister Zhai Jun had said: "I believe this visit will not only boost bilateral ties, but also peace and stability in this region.” (PB)

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