KIGALI, Rwanda — China has emerged as a major player in African politics, with appeals for developing world solidarity increasingly overshadowed by the country’s interest in securing access to vital raw materials.
Though still a poor country by the numbers, China has moved aggressively over the past few years — with development aid and private investment — to tighten relations with resource-rich African nations, with a particular emphasis on assuring access to crude oil.
Economists and Western officials say the Chinese leadership has recognized the long-term needs of the country’s fast-growing economy and sees Africa as a region where Beijing’s influence over precious commodities can only expand.
“It’s about feeding their gigantic economy,” said Walter Kansteiner, who recently left the position of assistant secretary of state for Africa.
Two-way trade between Africa and China hit $12.4 billion in 2002, and is likely to register a 50 percent growth in 2003, according to official Chinese statistics. At the end of 2003, Chinese investment in Africa amounted to more than $900 million.
Mr. Kansteiner, who is now involved in African finance as part of the Washington-based Scowcroft Group, said economic interests now largely outweigh political considerations. However, China regularly seeks African support for its claim that Taiwan is a renegade province.
On a trip to Africa this month, Chinese President Hu Jintao outlined his country’s policy in a speech to the parliament of Gabon, a small, oil-rich nation on Africa’s west coast.
“Our economic cooperation in the future could focus more on infrastructure, agriculture and resources development, and we shall step up our mutually beneficial cooperation to promote common development, thus making both sides winners,” he said, to a standing ovation.
Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa described China’s strategy in a 2002 speech with a proverb from his own country: “Those who arrive at the spring first drink the purest water.”
Chinese officials have cultivated considerable good will among African leaders by providing development aid — about $1.8 billion in 2002, according to official Chinese statistics — with no strings attached. Although the World Bank and Western governments often insist on respect for human rights and democratization as a precondition for aid, China imposes no such restrictions.
“It’s a different way of doing business,” said Donald Kaberuka, Rwanda’s finance minister.
China built a road in the richest section of Kigali, the Rwandan capital, and constructed the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and convention center as “gifts of the Chinese government.” The Chinese have financed other attention-grabbing projects all around the continent, such as administrative buildings in Gabon’s capital of Libreville, and in Ivory Coast, as well as an airport terminal in Algeria, and telecommunications networks in Ethiopia.
But more than development aid, trade and investment now dominate the Chinese relationship with Africa, said Nicholas Lardy, a China specialist at the Washington-based Institute for International Economics.
In the 1970s, China made its mark on Africa by bankrolling projects such as the massive Tanzania-Zambia railway. By the 1980s, as China embarked on free-market reforms, aid to Africa dried up almost completely before rising sharply in the late 1990s.
“The emphasis is completely different today,” Mr. Lardy said.
Oil plays the most significant role in Chinese calculations. Mr. Hu’s trip included stops in Algeria and Egypt, which are significant crude producers. Last year, according to international statistics, China surpassed Japan as the second-largest oil importer after the United States.