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Friday, October 27, 2006

China Defends its Expansion into Africa

FT.com -- China has rejected criticism it is ignoring environmental and anti-corruption standards in its courtship of Africa ahead of an unprecedented summit in Beijing involving more than 40 leaders from the continent.

China said Thursday that all 48 African countries invited to the two-day summit next week would send representatives, with most confirming their heads of state would attend.

The five remaining nations in the 53-strong African Union which recognise Taipei ahead of Beijing have also been invited to send observers.

The summit will attempt to give some political ballast to a relationship that has developed rapidly over the past five years, driven by China’s need for raw materials, especially oil, from the resource-rich continent.

But China’s expansion in Africa has also drawn criticism for overlooking human rights abuses in countries such as Sudan and declining to adopt a lending code followed by many global banks on social and environmental standards.

Wei Jianguo, a vice-minister for commerce, defended China’s engagement with Africa, saying its soft loans, infrastructure projects and commercial investments were “like sending firewood in the snow”.

“Chinese investments have greatly benefited the local people and have been popular among them,” said Mr Wei. “And compared to western products, Chinese products enjoy a better price-to-performance ratio and better meet the needs of consumers.”

China had invested about $6.27bn in Africa by the end of last year, about 10 per cent of all overseas investment. It has also financed ports, railways and other infrastructure projects.

The largest impact has been in two-way trade, which jumped from about $10bn in 2000 to an expected $50bn this year. The trade balance is slightly in African’s favour.

Angola, which has overtaken Saudi Arabia as China’s single largest oil supplier, and South Africa, the two biggest bilateral trading partners, make up for about a third of the $50bn.

The summit is expected to issue a broad declaration of amity between China and the continent, and also provide a forum for announcements about tariff reductions, aid, training programmes and debt forgiveness.

There will also be a large China-sponsored trade fair, flanked by a second “entrepreneurs’ summit” between African and Chinese business men and women.

However, African officials said the sheer size of the event will make it difficult for anything of detail or substance to be discussed.

“I don’t think you can get much engagement when everything has been so scripted in advance,” said a Beijing-based ambassador from an African country.

Aside from speeches from Hu Jintao, China’s president, and the leaders of Ethiopia, which is the co-host, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the chair of the African Union, other leaders get just five minutes speaking time.

Zhai Jun, an assistant foreign minister, indicated Chinese leaders would be meeting separately with Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the Sudanese president, when he is in Beijing.

Mr Zhai said China supported better protection for human rights in Sudan but was using its “own channels’ to try to bring parties to the table on the issue of Darfur.

China agreed that the United Nation should have a more “active role” in the issue but would not back any initiatives which went against its bedrock diplomatic principle of “non-interference” in the affairs of other countries.

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