In Inaugural Trip, China’s President Pushes Trade Ties With Africa

Though Xi Jinping's trip has generally gone well, there have been a few notes of discontent with China's growing influence in Africa

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South Africa's President Jacob Zuma shakes hands with China's President Xi Jinping after a media briefing at the presidential guest house in Pretoria, on March 26, 2013

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s inaugural trip, which has taken him to Russia, Tanzania and South Africa before a final stop in the Republic of Congo, has been examined for what it says about his aspirations for a multipolar world and the potential to develop counterweights to influence of the U.S. and Europe. In simpler terms, he could just want to start off his expected 10 years as China’s leader with a visit to a few friends.

A Gallup World poll of global attitudes toward China’s leadership in 2011 found the highest levels of support were found in sub-Saharan African states, which filled the top 20 positions. In Tanzania, where Xi spoke at a Chinese-backed convention hall on Monday, 68% of respondents approved of the job being done by China’s leaders, versus 29% who disapproved, according to the Gallup survey. China’s economics first approach, with heavy emphasis on trade and none of the West’s chiding over corruption, democracy or human rights, has found a welcome audience. The trade relationship with the continent has expanded vastly in recent years, increasing from $10.6 billion in 2000 to nearly $200 billion last year, China’s state-run Xinhua news service reported.

(MORE: China’s New President Xi Jinping Met With Mysterious Lone Vote of Dissent)

In Dar es Salaam, Xi cited Chinese support for development in Tanzania and visited a graveyard where dozens of Chinese who died during construction of the Tanzania-Zambia railway in the 1970s are buried. He discussed plans to provide scholarships for thousands of African students and the extension of up to $20 billion in credit for projects on the continent. And he emphasized China’s longstanding ties with the region and desire to not dictate the terms of development. “Unity and cooperation with African countries have always been an important foundation for China’s foreign policy, which will never change, not even when China grows stronger and enjoys a higher international status,” Xi said, according to Xinhua’s report, adding, “China will continue to offer, as always, necessary assistance to Africa with no political strings attached.”

The friendly face that Xi has shown on this trip has been aided by his wife, Peng Liyuan, a People’s Liberation Army major general and well-known singer in China who has enjoyed a level of prominence and attention on this trip that has been given to a Chinese leader’s spouse in decades. But amid such a positive inaugural trip there have been a few notes of discontent with China’s growing influence in Africa. Botswana’s President Ian Khama voiced displeasure with the standards of Chinese construction work in his country in an interview last month. “There’s no point having a huge power investing in a country if those investments at the end of the day don’t do you any good,” he told South Africa’s Business Day. Lamido Sanusi, Nigeria’s central bank governor, wrote in a recent column for the Financial Times that the trade relationship between his country and China — with Nigeria providing petroleum and China selling consumer goods in return — resembled the colonialism of an earlier era.

(MORE: Africa Rising)

In South Africa, where Xi is joining the five-nation BRICS summit with leaders of Brazil, Russia, India and South Africa, he faces a stern test as well. While South African President Jacob Zuma said it was important for his country to learn from China’s successes, South Africans have as a whole been more circumspect. In a 2011 poll conducted for the BBC World Service, 52% of South African respondents said they thought China’s economic growth was a positive development. While a narrow majority, it was the lowest among the African states surveyed and a drop of 12% from when the question was last asked there in 2005. On the last leg of his journey Xi will visit the Republic of Congo, where  the leadership of China had an 81% approval rating two years ago. Almost the sort of support Xi could expect from China’s rubber stamp congress.

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