Wednesday, November 1, 2006

BEIJING — Forty-eight African leaders will convene in Beijing tomorrow, with Chinese officials unusually defensive about suggestions that they are exploiting Africa to satisfy their country’s growing economic needs.

The heads of state are expected to participate in the unprecedented three-day gathering that many foreign diplomats and analysts describe as a “charm offensive.” Chinese leaders reject that term.

Accusations of a Chinese threat to Africa are unfounded, state council member and former Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan said last week. He took pains to reassure Americans and others that China will not threaten their interests in the continent.

Chinese involvement “will not affect the cooperation of China or African countries with a third party, nor will it hurt the interests of any third party,” Mr. Tang told the Xinhua news agency. “Quite on the contrary, strengthened China-Africa cooperation and common development will only bring good opportunities for the rest of the world.”

A day before Mr. Tang spoke, World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz accused China and its banks of ignoring human rights and environmental standards when lending to certain African countries.

“I hope, in time, our viewpoints will converge,” Mr. Wolfowitz told Les Echos, the French sister newspaper of the Financial Times.

In September, the Zambian opposition’s presidential candidate, Michael Sata, called the Chinese in his country “exploitative investors” who “ill-treat our people.”

“Foreign relations must benefit all concerned,” he said. “It must not be a one-way street. Chinese investment has not added any value to the lives of the people of Zambia. We want investors … who add value.”

The China-Africa Cooperation Forum was established in 2000, but its highest-level sessions have been ministerial meetings. The summit that begins tomorrow will be the largest gathering of Chinese and African leaders in history.

China’s investment in Africa has exceeded $6 billion, according to Ministry of Commerce statistics. More than 800 nonfinancial investment projects have been set up in 49 African countries, covering trade, manufacturing and processing, resource development, communications, agriculture and other areas.

Government figures show that by the end of last year, China had invested in 27 major oil and natural-gas projects in 14 African countries, including Sudan, Algeria, Angola and Nigeria. It imported more than 38 million tons of crude oil from Africa in 2005, or about 30 percent of its total oil imports.

In the first six months of this year, Sino-African trade totaled $25.6 billion, up 41 percent from the same period last year.

U.S. officials said they will scrutinize the summit, but that China’s interest in Africa is not necessarily a negative development. If conducted properly, respecting international standards and following transparent practices, Chinese investment could help Africa and the world economy as a whole, they said.

“We welcome not only Chinese, but any country’s efforts to bring about economic development and positive change in Africa,” said a senior State Department official in Washington. “We hope the Chinese will engage with African regimes and emphasize the importance of democracy and human rights.”

Jendayi Frazer, assistant secretary of state for African affairs, urged China earlier this year to invest in sectors other than oil, which would “contribute to Africa’s growth and development” rather than just helping China’s economic growth.

Mauro De Lorenzo, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, said China also has “increased military cooperation and arms sales” to Africa. He added that, because of the lack of transparency, “nobody knows if the Chinese are making money in Africa.”

“The Chinese interest has no doubt raised Africa’s status,” he said. “For the first time, we are talking about Africa in terms of what it has to offer, not what it needs.”

Mr. De Lorenzo noted that the Sept. 28 Zambian election marked the first time that China openly interfered in another country’s affairs.

After Mr. Sata’s anti-China comments, Beijing’s ambassador to Zambia, Li Baodong, suggested that bilateral ties would suffer and Chinese investors might pull out if Mr. Sata won. He did not.

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