Pallavi Aiyar

China is hosting the leaders of more than 40 African nations in Beijing from November 3 to 5. This underscores its attempts to increase economic and diplomatic clout with a continent often ignored by the rest of the world.

BEIJING IS pulling out all the stops to host its largest ever gathering of foreign leaders the heads of state of more than 40 African nations. The China-Africa summit will be held from November 3 to 5 and for Beijing it is a chance to stage a major publicity coup.

Gigantic billboards depicting giraffes and elephants with titles like "The beautiful Africa" have been erected all across the city and outsized hoardings of the summit's slogan, "Peace, Cooperation, Friendship and Development" dominate the Beijing skyline.

To ensure traffic jam-free travel for the summit's more than 2000 delegates, Beijing has issued a slew of decrees including banning 80 per cent of government and military vehicles from the road, forcing ordinary traffic off the airport-city expressway, and adjusting school timings to avoid congestion during rush hour. Police personnel have had all leave cancelled for the period of the conference and 1,800 of them in addition to thousands of volunteers will be pressed into service patrolling the streets.

The enormous efforts being made for the summit underscore Beijing's concerted attempts to expand its economic and diplomatic clout in Africa, a continent often ignored by the rest of the world. By combining handouts of billions of U.S. dollars in aid and investment with judicious rhetoric that alludes to the spirit of Bandung, China has increasingly come to challenge U.S. leadership in the region while being able to acquire the raw materials needed to feed its ever-expanding economy.

This year alone, a slew of big names from Beijing has toured the continent, lobbying for lucrative contracts and promising investments. In January, China's Foreign Minister swept through West Africa; President Hu Jintao visited Nigeria, Morocco, and Kenya in April; and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao took in seven African countries in June.

A measure of the success of China's Africa strategy is the tenfold increase in trade that ballooned to $40 billion last year up from some $4 billion in 1995. This figure is widely expected to double yet again by 2010. By contrast, Africa's trade with Europe, traditionally its largest partner, is falling, down to 32 per cent from 44 per cent ten years ago.

According to Chinese government statistics, the country has invested around $6.2 billion in aid and investment in Africa till the end of 2005. In 2004 alone, China's investments in the continent were to the tune of $900 million out of a total of $15 billion. Chinese State Counsellor Tang Jiaxuan said at a recent press conference that 720 major projects in 49 different African countries have been launched with Chinese assistance and Beijing has exempted a total of $1.3 billion in debt of 31 countries from the continent.

China has long been a supporter of African nationalisms but while in the 1950s and 1960s much of this support was driven by ideological considerations a combination of third world solidarity and the desire to promote communist ideals China's contemporary interest in the continent is of a different nature.

Beijing's primary motivation in its wooing of Africa today is access to the oil, metals, and timber that China needs to keep its economy growing at the 9-10 per cent levels it has maintained over the last decade. Thus China buys oil from Nigeria, Angola, and Sudan; iron ore and platinum from South Africa; copper from Zambia; timber from Cameroon; and so on in a seemingly endless list.

Africa is, moreover, a substantial market for China's exports. China's cheap products are a hit with consumers across the continent. According to reports in the African media, even in the fabled trading town of Timbuktu, the moped of choice for young men is the Chinese "Jin-Cheng."

A final motivation for China's proactive Africa policy is increased support for one of its main foreign policy goals: the acceptance by other countries of the one-China principle. In January this year Beijing brought out its first ever White Paper on Africa. It states that if African countries choose to accept the "one China principle as the political foundation for the establishment and development of China's relations with African countries," China will "co-ordinate positions on major international and regional issues and stand for mutual support on major issues concerning state sovereignty, territorial integrity, national dignity and human rights."

Given the economic benefits that trade and investment with China spell combined with the diplomatic weight of Beijing's permanent seat on the UN Security Council, it is small wonder that more and more African countries are, in fact, recognising Beijing's claim to sovereignty over Taiwan. Thus while in the early 1990s there were still more than 20 African countries that recognised Taiwan, now there are only five.

The latest to abrogate ties with Taiwan in favour of China are Chad, Senegal, and Liberia. Following Senegal's breaking off of relations with Taiwan, Beijing announced debt cancellation worth $18.5 million for Dakar, with $3.7 million for the construction of hospitals, roads, and other infrastructure. Liberia received $25 million for reconstruction and the offer of a $5 million interest-free loan.

China has invited the five African countries that still maintain diplomatic relations with Taiwan to Beijing for this week's summit and it is possible that financial and other incentives may yet induce Malawi, Gambia, Swaziland, Burkina Faso, and Sao Tome and Principe to embrace the one-China principle.

Helping China to gain influence in Africa is its studied policy of non-intervention in the internal affairs of sovereign countries, for many African nations an attractive alternative to the interventionist and prescriptive foreign policy of the United States and Europe. China is willing to deal with countries condemned by the West as corrupt and repressive. It is thus currently Angola's largest export market. And Angola has, in fact, replaced Saudi Arabia as China's largest oil supplier.

Similarly, China absorbs some 70 per cent of Sudan's exports. The decision of the U.S. government to cut ties with Sudan in the mid-1990s pressured Western oil companies to withdraw and opened new opportunities for Chinese investment. The China National Petroleum Corporation is currently the largest investor in the Sudanese oil industry.

China has, in fact, repeatedly used its clout at the United Nations in the defence of African countries widely condemned by the West. Thus Beijing has resisted any moves towards military intervention in Darfur and checked all attempts at discussion at the U.N. of Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe's Operation Murambatsvina last year.

While such actions have drawn criticisms from international human rights groups, Chinese officials insist Beijing's involvement in Africa has improved the lives of ordinary Africans without "imperialistic" meddling in political affairs. China's no-strings attached approach has proved popular and a line-up of African leaders has signalled support for Beijing's policy, ahead of this week's summit. Thus Mr. Mugabe was quoted by Xinhua news agency as saying, "We [Africans] have nothing to lose but our imperialist chains [in enhancing cooperation with China]."

China's engagement with Africa has had myriad benefits for the continent including the building of much-needed roads, railways, hospitals, and stadiums. In Ethiopia, China is involved in telecommunications, in Ghana in dam construction, and in Kenya in road building. China has also constructed a new Foreign Affairs Ministry building in Uganda and Djibouti and built a sports stadium in Mali that enabled the country to host the African Nation's Cup football tournament.

In addition to infrastructure creation, the Chinese are also aiding Africa with some genuine technology transfers. Beijing is, for example, helping Nigeria launch a satellite.

Moreover, China's massive appetite for raw materials has in general helped to drive up commodity prices to the benefit of the African economy, which grew at 5.5 per cent in 2005.

However, Africa-China relations are not completely friction free. African workers have protested against what they see as ill treatment and poor pay by Chinese companies, most recently at a Chinese-owned mine in Zambia. Some African analysts have also pointed to what they say is the unfair competition the flood of cheap Chinese goods in African markets creates for domestic producers. Even South Africa, a staunch ally of China, has voiced concerns regarding the impact of cheap Chinese clothes on its local textile industry.

In addition, a recent report from the OECD warned that China's demand for commodities may hamper the efforts of African countries to diversify their economies and move up the value chain.

China has certainly done its bit in helping to create and upgrade Africa's infrastructure. But for the continent to benefit from its relationship with China in the long-term, some analysts claim, it should push Beijing to lower tariffs on processed goods and promise more technology transfers.

It's unlikely that this week's summit will take a tough look at these sticky issues. Instead a broad declaration of friendship and reiteration of the strategic nature of the Sino-African relationship is likely. The real importance of the summit lies in the increasingly marked China-wards orientation of Africa that it underscores and with it a sharp shift in the received geopolitical status quo.