November 2, 2006

China Opens Summit for African LeadersBy REUTERS

Filed at 7:19 a.m. ETBEIJING (Reuters) – China <http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/international/countriesandterritories/china/index.html?inline=nyt-geo&gt; will be projecting soft power and seeking hard deals as it hosts dozens of African leaders at a summit this weekend that cements the Asian superpower’s deepening trade and political ties with the continent.

China’s investments and lending in Africa, fueled by its voracious appetite for oil and commodities, have been criticised for ignoring human rights and governance, but at the summit its self-styled role as a champion and leader of the developing world will be on full display.

“I expect that all of Africa will look at China’s great transformation, that we’ll see the cooperation that is now going on between Africa and China and identify new means by which we can support each other,” Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf told reporters in Beijing.

Trade between China and Africa has boomed to a projected $50 billion this year from $11 billion in 2000 and China’s president, premier and foreign minister all toured the continent in the past year, visiting 15 countries between them.

And while summits of this scale are about handshakes and photo ops, analysts say the event could spur new deals.

“It’s not entirely symbolism. It could provide some very critical force to push through some deals,” said Chu Tianshu, an associate professor of economics at the Southwestern University of Finance and Economics in Chengdu.

Chinese investments include a $3 billion iron ore mine, rail and port deal in Gabon and an agreement by offshore producer CNOOC to pay $2.3 billion for a stake in a Nigerian oil and gas field — China’s largest-ever overseas acquisition.

“I do expect more coming,” said Kang Wu, of the East-West Center in Hawaii, referring to oil deals. “China’s imports of African crude oil are really growing very fast.”

China fought off rival Taiwan to restore diplomatic ties with oil-rich Chad earlier this year and now sources more than one-third of its crude from Africa, with Angola its largest supplier on the continent.

HEARTS AND MINDS

But with its relationship with Africa criticised by everyone from lenders urging China to consider debt sustainability and social standards, to miners in Zambia who rioted over pay and working conditions at a Chinese-owned copper mine, Beijing will use its position as host to project a kinder, friendlier image.

China has embassies in every African country it has diplomatic ties with and has been pushing education and cultural exchanges, a strategy analysts say is about carving a role for itself in the hearts and minds of Africans.

“They do a lot of very big, very public infrastructure projects — universities, sports stadiums — all of these things get them noticed,” said one Western diplomat in Beijing.

China, oft-criticised for buying oil and selling arms in Sudan, also quietly broke with its traditional mantra of non-interference in domestic affairs by supporting the African Union peacekeeping force in Sudan’s troubled Darfur region.

It has canceled 10.9 billion yuan ($1.4 billion) worth of African debts, and analysts say it could announce further cancellations at the summit as a gesture of goodwill.

All of the courting is not just with business in mind, it also has a strategic aim — African countries represent a bloc vote that can sway decisions in global bodies like the World Trade Organization and the United Nations <http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/organizations/u/united_nations/index.html?inline=nyt-org&gt;.

While the red carpets and commemorative stamps that characterise the summit may on the surface be only ceremonial, the gathering reinforces a message to Africa’s leaders that they are important to China at a time when the continent gets little attention from investors in the West.

“It’s giving status to African leaders and telling Africa that China is a country that takes Africa seriously,” said Chris Alden, of the London School of Economic and Political Science.

“And that’s very important to the countries that are participating.”

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