China has said it would address African countries’ concerns by boosting trade in value-added products against the backdrop of rising Chinese investments in the continent’s natural resources, as heads of states and ministers from 50 African nations gather in Beijing for a landmark summit meeting.

Chinese President Hu Jintao is expected to announce a new set of financial commitments from Beijing in investment and aid to Africa on Thursday morning, when the fifth ministerial Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) opens here. At the previous summit in 2009, China committed to $10 billion in loans.

Chinese officials said the outcome document would reflect increasing concerns voiced by a number of African officials in consultations this week on the nature of the current trade relationship, which has been driven largely by Chinese hunger for natural resources.

“To increase added value of products in African countries and raise the level of the manufacturing sector is an issue of great interest to African countries,” said Lu Shaye, Director General of the Foreign Ministry’s Department of African Affairs. “During consultations on the outcome document, African countries have set out such an aspiration and we have already included that in the document.”

The Beijing summit this week is being attended by the Presidents of South Africa, Benin, Equatorial Guinea, Djibouti, Niger and Cote d’Ivoire, as well as the Prime Ministers of Kenya and Cape Verde and ministers from 50 African countries.

Expanding trade and investment is the focus of this week’s consultations, while more controversial issues, such as the incidents of abuse of workers on Chinese projects in Africa, safety concerns voiced by Chinese companies and illegal wildlife trade, are off the agenda, officials said.

To boost African exports, China has agreed to expand zero-tariff treatment to 95 per cent of products up from the current 60 per cent, Mr. Lu said. Trade between China and Africa soared to $166.3 billion last year, up by 83 per cent from 2009, when China became Africa’s biggest trading partner. India’s trade with Africa, by way of comparison, reached a little more than one-third of that figure, crossing $62 billion last year. Last year, Africa also became China’s second largest market for overseas contracts. The turnover of Chinese contractors reached $36 billion, rising 28 per cent from 2009.

Chinese officials have stressed the uniqueness of China’s relationship with Africa in comments ahead of the summit, pointing to the size of investments and growth of trade. They have also hit out strongly at criticism from the West that has often suggested of an exploitative relationship.

“I wish to point out that Africa belongs to the Africans — it is not anyone’s ‘cheese’”, Vice Foreign Minister Zhai Jun said in a speech this week. “To those who view China-Africa cooperation as threatening their own interests, I would say that it is their own mentality and policy that need to be examined.”

Ahead of the summit, China has faced calls to clamp down on illegal wildlife trade, largely driven by Chinese demand for ivory. Mr. Lu said China was “firmly opposed” to this trade, but added that the issue would not figure in this week’s talks.

The issue of abuse of workers in projects run by Chinese companies would also not figure in talks this week. “These are isolated cases and do not represent the mainstream of China-Africa cooperation,” he said. “Therefore, they have not been discussed in meetings”. Concerns voiced by Chinese companies on the safety of their personnel would also be kept out of this week’s meetings.

Mr. Lu did say that the Chinese government had told companies “to abide by local laws and regulations, respect local customs and exist in harmony with local communities.” “We have asked companies doing business in Africa to live up to social responsibilities and deliver benefits to the local people,” he said. “Chinese companies have done lot of good things to fulfill social responsibilities. These good things outnumber [cases of ] abuses of local workers, but have not been reported often by the media.”

Mr. Lu defended China’s model of dealing with African countries – with less intervention in their domestic affairs – saying it had been widely welcomed, despite Western criticism. “Many of the regional conflicts in Africa have been caused more by external factors, particularly foreign intervention,” he said. “No intervention does not mean no responsibilities. Western countries have a lot of accusations of China’s principle of non-intervention in domestic affairs, but this principle has received support from many African countries.”

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