<!-- IMAGE -->
Chinese and African officials will meet Sunday in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el Sheikh for a conference on trade and investment. Despite the global financial crisis and lowered expectations, the relationship is going strong.
China's Assistant Foreign Minister Zhai Jun says the theme of the conference will be a new type of strategic partnership, and cover such disparate topics as energy security and climate change.
Speaking in Beijing before the two-day meeting, Zhai said participants will adopt two documents, outlining areas of agreement and plans for future cooperation. He said there will also be an emphasis on sustainable development.
The meeting follows up on a previous Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in Beijing three years ago. While both sides have encountered a few problems adjusting to the relationship, trade has surged ahead, topping $100 billion last year. China continues to invest in African infrastructure projects, while establishing bases in the resource-rich continent to fuel its massive domestic energy demands.
China's Deputy Commerce Minister Chen Jian says Beijing is also helping African nations' meet their energy needs.
Chen says one third of China's overall assistance to African countries is devoted to energy.
The massive investment means China is starting to eclipse the outside role traditionally played by the United States and Europe. The speed and depth of the relationship have led some to question if Africa is simply opening itself up to a new form of exploitation.
Tom Carghill of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, an independent research organization in London, says in most cases that does not hold true.
"Over all, I think it has been a largely balanced relationship," Carghill said. "African governments that have negotiated strong, good deals with China, including Angola, have done well out of it. But also China has gotten access to the markets and the commodities that it needs."
There are downsides. Small manufacturers in Africa, like their counterparts around the world, complain the influx of cheap Chinese goods is putting them out of business.
And there are cultural sensitivities as well. Muslim clerics were appalled when a Chinese company made a kit designed to fake virginity available in Egypt.
But the biggest problem appears to be one of transparency. The Chinese government prides itself the investment and trade deals come with no conditions. The move gives African states more control over projects, but the lack of good governance clauses leaves the door open for corruption.
Tom Carghill of the Royal Institute says there is a perception Chinese business companies get away with practices that others might not. He says it is up to the Chinese and African governments to ensure existing rules and regulations are applied.
"I also think that we have to be realistic," Carghill said. "China, ultimately, is still a third-world country in many respects, and its companies and its business people come from that background, and it would be strange if they applied a higher standard in the African states in the way they do business than they do back home in China."
Carghill adds that, since the last conference in Beijing, both sides have become, inevitably, more realistic about how the relationship will work in the future.