Dar es Salaam: African dancers and a 21-gun salute welcomed Chinese President Xi Jinping in Dar es Salaam on Sunday at the start of an African tour that underlines the continent’s strategic importance for China both for its resources and as a marketplace.
Visiting, Tanzania, South Africa and Republic of Congo on his first trip abroad as president, Xi will aim to build on expanding economic relations that many Africans see as a healthy counterbalance to the influence of the West.
He might also address concerns in Africa that the continent is exporting raw materials while spending heavily to import finished consumer goods from the Asian economic powerhouse.
“He will be looking to tone down the feeling that China is just here to exploit resources. I think that is going to be his main job,” James Shikwati, director of the Nairobi-based Inter Regional Economic Network think tank, told Reuters.
Xi is due to hold trade talks with Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete before a state banquet. On Monday Xi will deliver his first policy speech on Africa.
He will then head to South Africa for a summit of leaders of the world’s major emerging economies, known as the Brics, on Tuesday and Wednesday, and could endorse plans to create a joint foreign exchange reserves pool and an infrastructure.
The proposal underscores frustrations among emerging markets at having to rely on the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, which are seen as reflecting the interests of the United States and other industrialised nations.
The east African seaboard is hot property after huge gas discoveries in Tanzania and neighbouring Mozambique. Chinese oil company CNPC this month acquired a 20 per cent stake in the Eni Mozambique offshore project worth $4.21 billion, linking one of the planet’s biggest untapped gas resources with the fastest growing gas consuming country.
Oil strikes in the region have also caught China’s eye.
China has built roads, railways, and landmark buildings across Africa to win access to its oil and minerals like copper and uranium.
“China is what we call an all-weather friend,” said teacher Mwajuma Swai before Xi’s arrival. “They don’t flip-flop like the West and they don’t give us a string of conditions for aid and trade.”
But China’s increasing presence in Africa has prompted concern as well as gratitude.
Nigeria’s central bank chief, Lamido Sanusi, said Africans should wake up to the realities of their “romance with China.”
“So China takes our primary goods and sells us manufactured ones. This was also the essence of colonialism,” Sanusi wrote in the Financial Times this month. “Africa is now willingly opening itself up to a new form of imperialism.”
“We must see China for what it is: a competitor.”
Sanusi’s comments were echoed in the streets of Dar es Salaam, decked out with Chinese flags for Xi’s visit. Businessman Hamisi Mwalimu said: “We need a smart partnership where both Tanzania and China benefit. Right now, they’re getting a much better deal than us.”
Beijing has kept under wraps details of new investments or aid Xi will announce, a typical feature of overseas trips by Chinese leaders. Last year, Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao offered $20 billion in loans to African countries.
At that summit, China pledged to help Africa export manufactured products, not just raw materials, and to import from the continent.
Some Western governments say China supports African governments with dubious human rights records to get access to resources. Such criticism draws rebukes from China that the West treats Africa as though it were a colony.
“Africa wants to be treated as an equal, and this is what many Western countries do not understand, or are at least are not willing to do,” Zhong Jianhua, China’s special envoy to Africa, told Reuters in an interview this month.
“China at least knows that we have to treat people in Africa as equals.”
Zhong acknowledged Chinese companies faced criticism for using Chinese workers on African infrastructure and mining projects. Beijing estimates almost 1 million Chinese are working in Africa.
“We have told Chinese companies that they cannot just use Chinese workers,” Zhong said. “I think most Chinese firms now realise this.” Yet not all African governments appear that worried with the use of Chinese workers, especially for infrastructure projects.
“China isn’t coming to Congo to create jobs,” Republic of Congo Ambassador to China, Daniel Owassa, told Reuters.