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China pushes for deeper engagement with Africa

Updated: 2015-11-26 21:27

BEIJING -- Chinese President Xi Jinping and his African counterparts will have much to celebrate at the upcoming Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in Johannesburg, South Africa next month.

When the forum was first established in 2000, trade volume between China and Africa was only $10 billion. Now China has become the continent's largest trading partner, with trade volume expected to exceed $300 billion in 2015.

By the end of 2014, more than 2,500 Chinese companies were conducting business in Africa, which has a total population of more than 1.1 billion.

But China-Africa engagement is also at a crossroads, with China poised to have a long-term slower growth and Africa seeking to upgrade its agrarian and manufacturing industries.

Adding to the concern was an announcement by the Ministry of Commerce earlier this month that China's investment in Africa fell by more than 40 percent year-on-year in the first half of 2015.

"The decline in investment was due to various reasons, such as shrinking demand amid global economic slowdown and volatile geopolitical situations in some African countries," said Liu Hongwu from the Institute of African Studies under Zhejiang Normal University.

Describing China as "a small player" in African investment, Liu estimated that China accounted for only 3 to 4 percent of total investment in Africa.

He believed that in the long run, China's investment in Africa will continue to rise. That is in line with the vision of Premier Li Keqiang, who pledged to boost China's investment to some $100 billion by 2020.

China's engagement with Africa is changing. After decades of helping African countries build infrastructure and providing aid, China has seen more companies expand their presence in other areas such as agriculture, transportation and consumer goods.

The African market has become one of the most important markets for Lenovo, the world's largest PC maker. Smartphones made by Huawei are also popular in African countries, with sales trailing only behind Samsung.

How the two continue to forge a "win-win" relationship will become the focus of Xi's visit, which analysts say will demonstrate the importance China attaches to the continent, just like Xi's first overseas visit to South Africa after he assumed office in 2013.

Xi is expected to announce new measures to help Africa with industrialization, food security, public health and disease prevention, said Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi when attending the ministry's 15th Lanting Forum on Thursday.

He said mutual cooperation has entered a new era, calling on the two sides to combine China's advantage in development experience and production with Africa's advantage in natural and human resources.

Wang added that the two sides share much in common and hold similar stances on many international and regional issues. The suffering and hardships they both experienced help them understand each other and cooperate in development.

This partially explains China's continuing aid to African countries. Since 2012, the Chinese government has lent a hand in around 900 aid programs in Africa, helping the continent cultivate more than 30,000 professionals on various fields, said vice commerce minister Qian Keming on Thursday.

Qian said China will diversify imports from the continent and buy more products in addition to primary commodities, particularly natural resources, which now accounts for the bulk of China-Africa trade.

In recent years, China has also made increased efforts to address other concerns.

Since the outbreak of the deadly virus last year, China has delivered more than 750 million yuan ($117 million) worth of humanitarian aid and sent hundreds of medical workers to the front line in Ebola-stricken West Africa.

"China's all-out efforts in helping Ebola-inflicted African countries demonstrated China's image as a responsible country and significantly fortified and developed the Sino-African friendship," said President Xi in a letter sent to Ebola fighters.

The issue of wild life protection is also expected to be part of the discussion at the upcoming forum, according to Dr. Patrick Bergin, CEO of the Africa Wildlife Foundation (AWF).

"The issue will be part of the high-level discussions as it will be the first time wildlife and environmental conservation is discussed at the forum," he said.

Chinese authorities imposed a one-year ban on imports of African ivory as hunting trophies, as part of efforts against rampant poaching in the continent, on Oct. 15.

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