At the end of a two-day summit in Egypt, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao announced a raft of measures that will see business and trade ties between his country and Africa grow even stronger.
China is keen to cement its foothold in Africa
Last year bilateral trade between China and Africa reached an epic 100 billion US dollars, currently the Chinese economy is four times as big as that of the whole of Africa, where affordable consumer goods are lacking.
On Sunday, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao reflected the close ties between the two pledging $10 billion in loans and announcing that tariffs on 95 percent of products from the least-developed African nations would be removed. China's foreign minister said on Monday that these ties would ultimately help Africans "improve their livelihood."
"China is present in almost every African country," said Denis Tull, a researcher with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin, in an interview with Deutsche Welle. "And it's not just a matter of buying raw materials nor is it part of a grand strategy."
Dominic Johnson, Africa expert with the Berlin-based newspaper Tageszeitung told Deutsche Welle that, "there seems to be a shift away on the Chinese side from simply investing in natural resource extraction or buying oil toward investing in African infrastructure."
A few days ago, China and Nigeria signed a contract on building a railway line - a much-needed development as the railway infrastructure in Africa's most populous state dates back to colonial times. The first ones to benefit from a better transport system in Nigeria are the Chinese themselves. Chinese companies are keen to develop the Nigerian market, as Johnson explained: "Nigeria has a rapidly growing middle class. And geographically it is located perfectly to supply the entire West African market. So it's a very interesting country for doing business."
The Chinese export mainly basic consumer goods to Nigeria - clothes, shoes, but also electronics and motorcycles. "Chinese traders have been very good at settling down in African markets, bringing in lots of goods at low prices and really pushing themselves into the consumer market," said Johnson.
Chinese companies are investing in African infrastructure projects
Africa has become a busy hub
It doesn't do any harm that China is an emerging country itself, said Johnson, on the contrary: "In fact it strengthens the Chinese, because on the political level they can say to the Africans: we're both against the mighty West. Some African leaders feel quite happy about that. They look at China and say: forty years ago China was as poor as us, look at them now, shouldn't we be doing the same thing?"
However, Tull only partially agrees with that assessment: "Frankly speaking this may contribute to some sympathy, but I don't think this is substantially influencing the relationship. I think both sides, the Chinese and the African side are very pragmatic in their relationship and I wouldn't say that there is so much spinning or ideology involved," he said.
After all the Chinese are not the only new players on the African market, as Tull explains: "There is an increased presence of other emerging countries like India, like Brazil, etc. This means there is certainly more competition. Africa has become a busy place, politically and economically."
No room for human rights
Africa's relationship with former colonial powers like Germany is still strong
It also means that European partners have to share their interests with others, but Tull is convinced that Africa's relationship with its former colonial powers will remain a special one: "Europe's relationship with Africa has a certain depth, an historical depth, and it certainly has a lot of intensity. Therefore I don't think that the Chinese influence will grow to an extent that there would be no Europeans left in Africa in 20 years time or so. The Europeans will always have a presence there and will always maintain these networks, contacts and long-standing connections."
It remains to be seen however how much influence western countries will have in Africa in the future. China presents itself to African states as a partner and not as a donor. It makes deals without political conditions, but not necessarily without political impact.
Johnson says that China tends to support the government of the day, like in Sudan: "China is one of the main arm suppliers for the government of Sudan. That has made a difference for the Darfur war. Also China stopped the UN Security Council from taking measures against Sudan. So there is certainly political influence there."
Guinea is another example, says Tull, "where it has been reported that the government has signed a seven-billion-dollar deal with Chinese companies at a time when the new military regime is under immense international pressure over the recent massacre of civilians in the capital of Conakry. That too illustrates that the Chinese are really not paying attention at all to human rights."
Author: Patrick Vanhulle
Editor: Rob Mudge