- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 18, 2012

BEIJING — China touted its close relations with Africa on Wednesday ahead of talks with the continent’s senior officials, even as some African countries grumble about problems that come from being locked in a tight embrace with the resource-hungry Asian economic power.

Commerce Minister Chen Deming wrote in the China Daily newspaper that total trade between China and Africa hit a record high of $166 billion last year. Mr. Chen said direct Chinese investment in Africa reached $14.7 billion by the end of last year, a 60 percent increase from two years earlier.

His comments came as African officials, including some heads of state and government, arrived in Beijing for two days of talks on expanding cooperation. Also attending the opening ceremony for the meeting was U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who praised China’s relations with Africa in his talks Wednesday with Chinese President Hu Jintao.

Close cooperation between China and Africa enabled them to weather the 2008 global crisis, Mr. Chen wrote.

“As a result, the trade and economic cooperation has witnessed faster growth across wider areas in more diversified forms, bringing more tangible benefits to the Chinese and African people,” he said.

Lu Shaye, director-general of African affairs for the Foreign Ministry, said Mr. Hu will announce investment and aid pledges for African countries when the meeting opens Thursday, but he did not give any details.

China has emerged as Africa’s main trading partner and a major source of investment for infrastructure development. China had poured billions of dollars into roads and the energy sector across the continent, but its presence has also sparked concerns about labor abuses and corruption.

In May, Zimbabwe’s labor minister said the government was investigating persistent reports of rampant abuse of workers by Chinese employers. In Zambia, complaints about Chinese business practices stretch back years.

Human Rights Watch said in a November report that despite improvements in recent years, safety and labor conditions at Chinese-owned copper mines in Africa are worse than at other foreign-owned mines, and Chinese mine managers often violate government regulations.

Mr. Lu told a news conference Wednesday that such cases were rare incidents. He said the issues are not on the agenda of the two-day meeting.

“Those are isolated cases and do not represent the mainstream of China-Africa cooperation,” he said.

Mr. Lu said China wants to further open its borders to African goods by expanding the scope of African products that enjoy zero tariffs to 95 percent from the current 60 percent.

He acknowledged concerns about substandard products being exported by Chinese companies to Africa and said it is not a policy of the government to send low-quality goods to Africa. He said China would step up supervision of its own products and help Africa improve its customs inspection abilities.

Mr. Lu criticized foreign intervention in Africa’s domestic issues, saying that a lot of problems faced by African countries are caused by external factors.

“The international community should support African countries own efforts and reducing intervention is also a way of giving support,” he said.