China's economic and diplomatic push into Africa has gone into overdrive this week with a seven-country tour by Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) to secure trade deals.
After warm welcomes in Egypt, Ghana, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola, Wen arrived in South Africa on Wednesday for two days of talks on nuclear power, textile imports and regional alliances. The visits form part of what Beijing officials have dubbed the "year of Africa," a drive for access to the continent's natural resources to fuel China's booming economy.
Wen was greeted at the Tuynhuys presidential office in Cape Town with a red carpet, two lines of Cabinet ministers and a South African navy brass band.
The pomp reflected China's burgeoning influence in Africa, which is rapidly catching up with that of the US and the old colonial powers, Britain and France. Wen said China's relations with Africa were based on mutual benefit and posed no threat to US interests.
China's trade with the continent reached a record US$39.7 billion last year, almost four times the figure in 2001. As ubiquitous as Chinese technicians building roads and railways are Chinese-run shops and restaurants. Schools have started teaching Mandarin and direct flights to Beijing and Shanghai are proliferating.
Wen was due to sign a pact on textiles to ease a trade imbalance blamed for the loss of 25,000 South African jobs, a touchy issue that has soured feelings towards Chinese immigrants. An accord on mining South Africa's rich uranium deposits and developing peaceful nuclear technology, was also expected.
China signalled its ambitions in January by publishing an Africa policy paper, followed by a tour of three countries by President Hu Jintao (
Wen's tour is a showcase of Chinese deal-making, but there was no doubting the trip's chief interest: oil.
With an economy that grew by 10.3 percent in the first quarter of this year, China's need is ravenous. Worried by Middle Eastern instability, it wants more oil from Africa, which already accounts for up to a third of its supply.