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On his Africa tour, Hu is all business

The Chinese president offers no-strings- attached economic partnerships and avoids political controversies.

February 07, 2007|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA — Chinese President Hu Jintao pledged Tuesday to boost his country's booming relationship with Africa, as he brought a 12-day tour of the continent to its economic powerhouse.

Hu's trip, during which he has lavished promises of economic partnership on half a dozen nations so far but steered clear of controversial political issues, has become a symbol of China's intense courtship of Africa.

The growing relationship has been viewed with trepidation by many in the West. U.S. officials, who see Africa as an alternative source of oil to the Middle East, have worried particularly about competition with China for the continent's resources.

As if to emphasize the competition for influence, U.S. officials on Tuesday announced formation of a new regional military command for Africa. Responsibility for the continent had been split between European Command and Central Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in the Middle East.

A U.S. military move

Countering the rising influence of China was not a direct reason for creation of the new Africa Command, said a Pentagon official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the new command publicly. But officials recognize that China "has a rising influence," he said. "There needs to be an understanding of what the U.S. role is and what the Chinese role is."

In addition to military planning, the Bush administration has sharply increased aid to Africa over the last several years, particularly to fight HIV/AIDS. So far, however, the Chinese approach, focusing on economic cooperation, appears to be gaining ground.

Bush has not visited Africa since his first term. By contrast, top Chinese officials have relayed across the continent every few months, winning points with no-strings-attached promises of economic support.

"China's charm offensive in Africa is second to none," said Philip Alves, an economist with the South African Institute of International Affairs.

"They do a lot of stuff in Africa. They don't see Africa as a burden. They see it as an opportunity. They don't see African leaders as hopeless and corrupt. They see them as equals worthy of respect. They've tried very hard, and I think that's why they're winning friends in Africa."

By contrast, U.S. Ambassador Eric Bost has complained publicly about the difficulty he has had in arranging meetings with South African government officials.

Many African leaders and politicians resent the way U.S. and European leaders try to tie loans and aid to human rights, democracy and governance issues. They increasingly are turning to China as the answer to their development problems.

On Tuesday, Hu emphasized China's aid and the absence of political strings as he tried to turn criticism by U.S. officials to his advantage.

This week, a U.S. official said Hu had sent "mixed signals" about the humanitarian catastrophe in Darfur during his visit to Sudan, where he promised aid to the Sudanese government but failed to publicly press for an end to violence in the stricken region.

The U.S. has described attacks on villages by militias with links to the Sudanese government as genocide and has pressed for sanctions against Sudanese officials.

China has blocked such penalties in the United Nations Security Council.

Hu said here that he had raised Darfur with the Sudanese president, Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir, and that he hoped the issue would be settled peacefully.

At a joint news conference Tuesday with South African President Thabo Mbeki, Hu contrasted the American approach with his own.

'Equality, mutual trust'

"The relationship between Africa and China is based on equality, mutual trust and win-win outcomes," he said, standing under a purple sky in the sticky evening warmth of Pretoria, South Africa's administrative capital. "China doesn't interfere in other countries' internal affairs."

China is Sudan's biggest investor and buys two-thirds of its oil. During his visit there, Hu offered a $12.9-million interest-free loan to build a presidential palace for Sudan, wrote off $70 million in debts to China, reduced import tariffs on Sudanese goods, offered a $77.4-million loan for infrastructure and a grant of $40 million.

Zambia has been another beneficiary. In its capital, Lusaka, Hu promised an "economic partnership zone" in the country's copper mining belt, designed to attract $800 million in Chinese investment and create 60,000 jobs.

Hu also offered assistance to smaller African countries, including Namibia, an arid country on the Atlantic with a population of 2 million that is rich in diamonds, uranium, cobalt and zinc. There, he signed off on a $4.2-million grant and a $5-million interest-free loan and eased debt payments.

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