China's President Hu Jintao is beginning a 12-day eight-nation tour of Africa in an effort to expand trade and foreign aid, while securing access to natural resources. Jordan Davis reports from VOA's West and Central Africa bureau in Dakar that Mr. Hu is beginning the trip in Cameroon.
China has stepped up its diplomatic efforts in recent years as its economic relationship with the continent has grown quickly. Chinese officials say trade with Africa topped $55 billion last year, five times more than in 2001.
Mr. Hu is making his third visit to Africa since coming to power in 2003. His first stop on his official visit, Cameroon, is an emerging energy producer.
Timothy Armitage, an analyst with London-based Global Insight, says as Chinese domestic oil production slows, officials in Beijing are likely looking at Cameroon as a new source of fossil fuels in an energy-rich part of Africa.
"It sort of solidifies China's role in that region. As we have seen it is going into Angola in a heavy way, as well as into Nigeria," Armitage says. "And Cameroon seems a likely [next] step."
China has also become a major donor to African nations and says it plans to double foreign aid by 2009.
China's so-called "trade for aid" approach has drawn criticism from human-rights groups and international agencies.
Officials in Beijing do not make democratic reforms or cleaning up corruption a condition of its money, but do ask governments to allow in Chinese manufactured goods.
Critics say cheap Chinese products are bad for local industries. But Armitage says in his analysis, "trade for aid" is good for Africa.
"It does provide infrastructure investment, it does provide aid and it does provide financing," Armitage says. "All of these things African economies sorely need. It very much lies in the hands of these African governments and what they choose to do with their newfound aid and their soft loans from China."
Later stops on Mr. Hu's visit include Sudan and Liberia, which is trying to rebuild following a lengthy civil war.
A number of human rights groups have urged China to use its leverage as a major Sudanese oil customer to pressure officials in Khartoum to accept peacekeepers in Darfour.
China, a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, has also been reluctant to agree to sanctions against Sudan. Diplomats in Beijing have said they do not believe sanctions would be productive, and they will only support a U.N. force in Darfour if Sudan agrees to their presence.
The Chinese leader will also visit Namibia, South Africa, Seychelles, Zambia, and Mozambique.