China intensified its economic courting of Africa on Thursday, as Premier Hu Jintao pledged $20 billion in loans to countries on the continent over the next three years.
Hu made the pledge at the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in Beijing, doubling the amount offered at the last meeting of the group in 2009.
He also tried to allay the criticism of some African leaders that most of China’s infrastructure projects on the continent use Chinese rather than African labor and that trade with China, which purchases huge amounts of raw materials for its manufacturing sector, isn’t balanced or sustainable.
In recent years, China has left Western competitors behind in its drive to curry favor with African leaders, providing loans and building roads, railways and infrastructure with a no-questions-asked approach.
China’s seeming indifference to abuses of human rights has attracted criticism from Western competitors and some rights activists. Many African leaders, however, don’t express such concerns.
Nor do some bloggers and activists. They say U.S. and European businesses are just as eager to get their hands on African resources, regardless of the effect on poor communities or the environment. And they often portray American pressure for democratic advances and freedoms in Africa as hypocritical, given the close U.S. relationship with long-term autocrats such as Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi or Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni.
Trade between China and Africa has expanded at a breathtaking rate, tripling since 2008, to $166 billion last year.
In a jab at what he indicated was the lecturing tone that Western leaders sometimes adopt with African leaders, South African President Jacob Zuma said Europeans dealing with the continent were only interested in their own benefit, while China treated the Africans as equal partners.
“Africa’s past economic experience with Europe dictates a need to be cautious when entering into partnerships with other economies,” Zuma said. “We certainly are convinced that China’s intention is different to that of Europe, which to date continues to tend to influence African countries for their sole benefit.”
China relies heavily on Africa for oil, metals and other raw materials. But Zuma called for more balance in South Africa’s trade with China.
Seeking to address the criticisms, Hu said China would focus on investments that would benefit Africans: agriculture, medical training and water infrastructure. He promised to train 30,000 Africans, provide 18,000 scholarships and send 1,500 medical personnel to Africa.
He also called for more cooperation between China and Africa in international bodies to counter the influence and actions of wealthy Western nations. “We should oppose the practices of the big bullying the small, the strong domineering over the weak and the rich oppressing the poor,” he said.
China suffered a setback in Africa recently when its oil investments were hurt by the feud between Sudan and South Sudan over oil exports. China’s national oil company has operated oil wells in South Sudan, which gained independence from Sudan last year.
South Sudan, suspicious of China’s close relations with Sudan, claimed that the Chinese company had colluded with Sudan in understating the amount of oil exported in the six years before independence, when oil revenues were divided between the now separate African nations.
The interests of the China National Petroleum Corp. were severely damaged when South Sudan shut down oil production in a dispute with Sudan over the share of oil revenues. China watched with increasing frustration as South Sudan recently celebrated its first anniversary as a nation, with little progress in resolving the row.