Chinese President Hu Jintao enters a conference hall for the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, in Beijing on July 19. He is flanked to the left by South African President Jacob Zuma, and to the right by Benin President Boni Yayi. Other African national leaders can be seen behind, as well as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. Photo: Reuters

Despite Western criticisms and suspicions, it looks like economic and political relations between China and Africa are getting closer than ever.

On Thursday, Beijing hosted the 5th Ministerial Conference of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), a major diplomatic venue that drew foreign ministers and representatives from 50 African nations. There are 54 fully recognized countries on the continent (the four which recognize Taiwan rather than the government of Beijing as the legitimate representative of China -- Burkina Faso, Sao Tome, Swaziland and Gambia -- were obvious no-shows).

Chinese President Hu Jintao announced to FOCAC that his government would provide Africa an additional $20 billion until 2015 for developing new infrastructure, improving agriculture, and building manufacturing and small- and medium-sized enterprises.

Hu mentioned that the Sino-African relationship was one built on mutual respect and mutual trust.

The continent's trade with China reached $166.3 billion in 2011, according to Beijing, 16 times higher than what it was at the turn of the 21st century. Africa as a whole runs a trade surplus with China, exporting $93.2 billion, mostly in natural resources, while China exported $73.1 billion back last year, mostly in finished products, manufactured goods, textiles, but increasingly automobiles and machinery as well.

By comparison, the U.S. exported $32.8 billion to Africa in 2011, importing $93 billion, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

In April 2012, China had $15.3 billion in direct investments in Africa; only a decade ago that figure was less than $500 million.

But others are not happy with the burgeoning relationship.


Liberian children in Monrovia hold Chinese flags to welcome President Hu Jintao on a visit to the countryin 2007. Photo: Reuters

Both Western governments and non-government groups have often called China's trade practices in Africa into question. Chinese companies are criticized for their environmentally destructive practices. Observers say that state-owned enterprises building infrastructure in Africa often choose to send workers from home rather than employing locals, dampening economic benefits to the host nation. NGOs say that China's energy relations with corrupt or oppressive governments amount to close political support for those regimes. Like-minded analysts say Chinese soft loans are reversing the gains made in democracy and political reforms over the past years. Others are worried that new Sino-African illicit trade networks in small arms, resources, and wildlife are degrading the capacity of still-fragile governments.

The Chinese government says all that is bogus.

Replying to criticism that China was only in Africa to take advantage of its wealth of resources, Vice Foreign Minister Zhai Jun noted last week that what was really hurting the continent's potential was an unfair and unreasonable international political and economic order.

The government argues the infrastructure it builds to facilitate transportating natural resources is also benefiting local populations. 

Beijing says it has built numerous non-industry specific facilities in past years: 100 schools, 30 hospitals, 30 anti-malaria centers, 20 agricultural technology demonstrations centers. The new gleaming African Union Headquarters in Addis Ababa (the tallest building in the city) which opened in January 2012 is a $200 million structure funded and built by China. President Hu says that his country has trained over 40,000 personnel and given 20,000 government scholarships to Africans in past years; it intends to create another program to train a further 30,000 and offer another 18,000 scholarships. Beijing also intends to send 1,500 medical personnel to Africa to deepen medical cooperation (though it did not say when or for how long).

China also resisted suggestions that it should do more to push countries to reform politically, especially with its close partners like Sudan and Angola. Zhai said that non-interference has not gone outdated. In a thinly-veiled quip to the U.S., he added that some countries ignored opposition from regional countries to intervene militarily in some regional hot-spot issues and press for regime change. This has disrupted regional and world peace and stability. The lessons learnt should all be remembered.

And to comments from those worried that Chinese businesses are forcing out and outbidding Westerners with unfair government assistance, Zhai said that those who view China-Africa cooperation as threatening their own interests, I would say that it is their mentality and policy that needs to be examined.

In response to the idea that exports to China are creating rentier states and deflating local manufacturing and refining, China says that it will help support local businesses and manufacturing (in part from the new loans it is offering). Beijing also claims it will build new cultural and vocation training facilities. Certainly, ignoring environmental protection and bypassing local refining were not only the practices of the Chinese alone -- Western and other Asian companies have done the same, largely because they could get away with it, and also due to the deficiency in skilled manufacturing that still persists in the region.

But regardless of whether one thinks China is actively pursuing an agenda of pilfering Africa, or whether its new relations with the continent are doing a wealth of good and bringing fresh energy, it is impossible to ignore that China is hoping to build a common front with African nations. Who they are confronting is obvious even if left unspecified: developed Western nations that hold what they see as a disproportionate influence in international trade, institutions, and financial order.


Two youths hold up an image of Chinese President Hu Jintao. Photo: Russian International Affairs Council.

The Chinese President remarked on Thursday that China and Africa have promoted democracy in international relations, and we are working to make the international order more just and equitable.

The President of South Africa, at least, seemed to be of the same mind. We are particularly pleased that in our relationship with China we are equals and that agreements entered into are for mutual gain, said Jacob Zuma.

We certainly are convinced that China's intention is different to that of Europe, which to date continues to intend to influence African countries for their sole benefit, added Zuma.

The South African leader's ex-wife, Nkosazana Clarice Dlamini-Zuma, recently won the chair of the African Union on July 15, narrowly defeating incumbent Jean Ping (himself half Chinese) from Gabon. Chinese Africa experts such as Xu Weizhong at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations think Dlamini-Zuma will maintain a policy of improving relations with China. Xu told China Daily that Dlamini-Zuma has vowed to enhance cooperation with China during her campaign. This year will be the first time the AU attends FOCAC as a full member.


Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, incoming chair of the African Union, shares a smile with outgoing Jean Ping in Addis Ababa. Photo: Reuters

The sentiment amongst Africans differs from nation to nation, but amid a precarious global economy, less financial assistance from the West, and continued annoyance at how aid from the U.S. and Europe is condiitional on reforms, nearly all are eager to court investment from China.

Six heads of state and two heads of government visited Beijing for FOCAC. Other than Zuma from South Africa, Presidents Boni Yayi from Benin, Teodoro Obiang from Equatorial Guinea, Ismail Omar Guelleh from Djibouti, Mahamadou Issoufou from Niger, Alassane Ouattara from the Ivoty Coast, and Prime Ministers Jose Maria Pereira Neves from Cape Verde and Raila Odinga from Kenya also attended.

The previous FOCAC was held in 2009, on the Red Sea at Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. Egypt's current political turmoil has prevented its sending a major government leader, but the country nevertheless sent a special envoy, Mohamed Kamel Amr.

Symbolic of the attention and support international bodies are now giving to the relationship, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also made an appearance.