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China's Xi promises equal trade relations with Africa

By Katie Hunt, for CNN
updated 8:10 AM EDT, Tue March 26, 2013
  • NEW: China's new president seeks to address unease over trade
  • Xi Jinping visiting Tanzania, South Africa and Republic of Congo on first overseas trip
  • Chinese have built infrastructure in exchange for natural resources like oil
  • Some local leaders have questioned to what extent Africa has benefited

Hong Kong (CNN) -- China's new president sought to address concerns among African leaders about the uneven nature of trade relations on Monday, promising an equal relationship that would promote development on the continent.

Xi Jinping made the speech defending China's economic role in Africa in Tanzania, the first stop of his African tour. He travels to South Africa on Tuesday and will attend a summit of the BRICS countries in the port city of Durban on Wednesday.

The focus on Africa on his first trip overseas trip underscores the strategic importance of the continent's natural resources for the world's second biggest economy, but local leaders are asking whether the relationship has benefited Africa as much as it has China.

Xi will finish his trip in the Republic of Congo, from where China imports oil to fuel its economic growth

In what was billed by Chinese media as a major foreign policy speech, Xi said that China had done its best to help Africa's development and insisted on equality among all countries, irrespective of size, strength and wealth.

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"Africa belongs to the African people," he said.

"In developing relations with Africa, all countries should respect Africa's dignity and independence," he added.

A lot is at stake. Africa is already a major source of natural resources for China and with African economies now some of the world's fastest growing, it's also an emerging a marketplace for Chinese-made goods.

Trade between Africa and China totaled $200 billion in 2012, according to Chinese state media, and the country is Africa's largest trading partner.

READ: China's positive spin on Africa

African leaders have welcomed China's no-strings investment as a counterbalance to Western aid that is usually conditional on reducing poverty, stamping out corruption or introducing democratic reforms.

But some, including Botswana President Ian Khama and Nigerian central bank governor Lamido Sanusi, have begun to question to what extent Africa has benefited.

"Cracks are appearing in this China-Africa relationship," said CNN Beijing and former Africa correspondent David McKenzie.

"There's a sense from Africans that it's not an equal relationship. That China is extracting oil and then in return building infrastructure projects with its own companies and own workers and not necessarily transferring the skills to African workers."

READ: Is China good or bad for Africa?

Xi signed trade and cultural agreements in Tanzania on Sunday and is due to meet with South African counterpart Jacob Zuma on Tuesday.

He will then fly to Durban to attend the BRICS summit -- which groups Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa -- where plans to create a multinational lender to rival the World Bank will be discussed.

Gratitude for Chinese investment in Africa has also been tarnished by a number of scandals, including the distribution of fake and poor quality anti-malarial drugs made illicitly in China and the mistreatment of workers.

"It is time for Africans to wake up to the realities of their romance with China," Sanusi wrote in an editorial in the Financial Times this month.

"China takes out primary goods and sells us manufactured ones. This was also the essence of colonialism."

Botswana's president recently told a South African newspaper that Chinese companies had let down his country, particularly over a power generation project. Khama added that other African leaders shared his concerns.

READ: Get ready for an African boom

But Adams Bodomo, African Studies director at Hong Kong University, says claims of neo-colonialism are overblown and that China's influence "was more positive than negative."

According to Xinhua, 85% of the staff employed by the more 2,000 Chinese companies operating in Africa were Africans.

"In 10 years, China has built a lot more infrastructure than, for example, Britain did in my own country -- Ghana -- for 100 years," Bodomo said.

CNN's Zhang Dayu and Lucrezia Seu contributed reporting from Beijing

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