In recent years, China?s activities in Africa have expanded dramatically. Chinese political and business leaders are visiting the continent regularly, and the giant of the Far East is pouring investment and aid into Africa. In exchange, it?s securing access to the continent?s natural resources, which Beijing considers essential for the further development of China, the most populous country in the world. Chinese officials maintain that they will not ?plunder? Africa, but aim to forge relationships on the continent that will be of ?mutual benefit.? However, concerns remain that China?s policies in Africa are not conducive to protecting human rights and combating corruption. Nevertheless, analysts agree that China?s new engagement with Africa represents a major transition in the continent?s strategic landscape. In the first of a five-part series, VOA?s Darren Taylor provides an introduction to China?s current relationship with Africa.

?China?s unfolding relationship with Africa is perhaps the most significant economic development on the continent in modern times,? says the director of the African Studies Program at the Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C., Dr Peter Lewis. 

?Images of Africa that are projected within China are very different from the kinds of images that we see of Africa (in the West). In China, Africa is projected as a continent of opportunity, a continent that is on the move, a continent that is not marginal but very central ? which is very different from how Africa is portrayed often in the media in the West,? says Prof. Deborah Brautigam, of American University?s School of International Service, who has been studying China?s evolving relationship in Africa since the early 1980s and has written several books on the subject.

China?s investment in Africa now stands at $1.5 billion a year, there are at least 700 Chinese enterprises operating on the continent, and China?s trade with Africa is approaching $50 billion, according to Lewis. This has made China the second-largest trading partner with sub-Saharan Africa, eclipsing one of the continent?s former colonial powers, Britain, which formerly enjoyed the highest economic profile in Africa.

?Aid flows from China to Africa have doubled, even tripled, in the last several years,? Lewis says.

In terms of debt relief, China recently wrote off $1.3 billion owed it by African countries, which has led to a fresh injection of good feeling in Africa towards the Chinese.  

Reflecting China?s increased interest in the continent, and Africa?s willingness to cooperate with Beijing, last November President Hu Jintao hosted 44 African heads of state at the China-Africa summit.

?It?s difficult to recall another international event at which 44 African heads of state have attended, excepting perhaps the General Assembly meetings at the UN,? says Lewis.

Then, in February this year, Hu visited eight African countries, including continental powerhouse South Africa. 

?China?s new engagement with Africa has been dramatic; it has been widespread; it has been reflected in economic, political and security relationships; and it has invited different perspectives,? Lewis commented.

?Some people see it as a competitive challenge ? as a resource race, an energy competition, a head-to-head zero-sum relationship between the US or Western energy consumers and China?s burgeoning economy and its burgeoning demand for energy.?

Other observers have interpreted these new relationships between China and Africa as an opportunity for development in sub-Saharan Africa ? a region that has been badly marginalized in the international economy over the last two decades, accounting for less than two percent of global trade flows, and only about one percent of direct foreign investment worldwide.

?The prospect of increased attention, focus and economic engagement with Africa would seem to present new opportunities, new possibilities, new resources ? and a counterweight, a reduction, of Africa?s troubling marginality in the global economic system,? Lewis explains. 

Other analysts have also pointed to the alternative model of development presented by Beijing.

?China, after all, was not long ago a poor, agrarian country, broadly similar to some of the development challenges facing sub-Saharan Africa. And as a poor, agrarian country that has become rich in a rather breathtaking climb to greater prosperity, many analysts have said that this presents possibilities for Africa ? an alternative development model,? says Lewis.

Certain commentators are convinced that China offers Africa a way out of poverty that doesn?t involve dependence on the developed world for charity.

But critics have also pointed to ?troubling? aspects of the relationship, says Lewis: ?(Some see) challenges for governance, economic development and security, arising from the Chinese relationship with Africa. Some critics have said that it represents a new colonialism, that China is basically going in for self-serving interests, principally concerned with natural resources and energy, engaged in lopsided deals with African countries, and that there are not balanced or mutual benefits here.?

Other critics have highlighted Beijing?s relationship with so-called ?rogue states? such as Zimbabwe, Equatorial Guinea and Sudan ? countries that are perceived to be engaged in large-scale corruption and human rights abuses.

There?s a view in the West, says Lewis, that China?s relationship will effectively ?bail out dictatorships and provide new opportunities for authoritarian regimes? and will detract from democracy efforts in Africa.  

Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe, for example ? in rejecting what he terms American and especially British interference in his country?s affairs ? has stated that he does not need monetary or food aid from the West for his impoverished and famine-ravaged country, because China is providing for Zimbabwe?s needs. President Mugabe has repeatedly said he prefers to forge strong relations with China because it, unlike the West, does not place any political conditions on its investments and aid.   

Security analyst David Goldwyn of Goldwyn International, an international energy consultancy firm, says ?some of what China is doing is incredibly helpful towards Africa in terms of aid, and investment and infrastructure ? and some of it is unhelpful, in that I think it does undermine a lot of the progress that?s been made on good governance ? maybe unintentionally, but I think it?s a fact.?                 

According to Pang Zhongying, a professor of international studies and the director of the Institute of Global Studies at Nankai University, the ?fear and paranoia? about China?s entry into Africa that is sometimes prevalent in ?especially the United States and Europe? is ?needless.?

?The West?s current concerns and debates are overreacted and exaggerated. China?s renewed Africa policy can be a great opportunity for China-Western dialogues, and cooperation. China-Africa strategic partnership can lead to an Africa-China-West triangle for Africa?s peace and development,? he says. 

But Pang also questions the West?s motives in ?sometimes vilifying every move China makes? inside Africa. 

?Why all the noise about China in Africa now, when China has had good relations with Africa since the 1950s he asks.

In the 1950s, when many African countries were fighting against colonialism, China?s Marxist leader Mao Zedong established political ties with them and showed solidarity with Africans. China began providing arms, ammunition and training to liberation movements? military wings. In the 1960s, when many African countries gained independence, China constructed roads and railways throughout sub-Saharan Africa. This relationship with the continent has evolved today into President Hu?s and Premier Wen Jiabao?s extended economic links with Africa, chiefly in the form of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), an alliance between China and what its government terms ?friendly? African countries for ?collective consultation and dialogue and a cooperation mechanism between the developing countries, which falls into the category of South-South cooperation.? 

Pang says China ?makes no secret? that, through stronger ties with Africa, it hopes to secure the natural resources it needs to continue with its ambitious domestic economic development agenda to satisfy its rapidly growing population, which now stands at 1.3 billion people, by far the largest in the world. 

?But China does not want to plunder Africa,? he stresses. ?China?s relations with Africa will be based on mutual benefit?. Development is the greatest common denominator between China and Africa. Chinese leaders say repeatedly that China is the world?s largest developing country. And Africa is the continent with the largest number of developing countries. So common development can be a common objective to pursue between China and Africa.?

But Pang insists that despite all the hype, China?s rise in Africa is ?limited.?

?The value of China?s trade with Africa at the moment is about $50 billion ? this amount equals the amount of aid African countries last year received from the European Union.?

Pang says China?s policy of ?trade rather than aid? to Africa ?shows that the hat of neo-colonialism does not fit China; it is a partner ? not a new colonizer.?

He predicts that the value of China?s trade with Africa will grow to at least $100 billion by 2010 and says China believes it has a duty to help Africa to develop.

?China is itself not a developed country; it has far more in common with Africa than the West. Like Africa, its economy also depends largely on foreign direct investment,? he explains.

Out of China?s burgeoning economic relationship with Africa, other results have sprung, such as the country?s increasing involvement in peacekeeping operations in war-torn nations such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan.

China continues to build infrastructure throughout Africa, including sports stadiums and hospitals, and has also established the Confucius Institute in Nairobi, to facilitate cooperation and ?better understanding? between China and Africa, says Pang.

Professor Deborah Brautigam of American University?s International Studies Department has written several books on China?s evolving relationship with Africa. She says only in recent years has China started emerging into a role as a great world power, despite the fact that it has long held a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.  

?What we?re seeing today are some of those growing pains still, of China as a great power now in the security area, China as a great power in the economy, China as a great power as a political force, China as a great power as a cultural force. And all of those forms of hard and soft power we see projecting into Africa, in ways that they hadn?t been very visible before,? Brautigam explains.

?As a result of that, the Chinese are now finding their people being taken as hostage in southern Nigeria, they?re finding that people are yelling and protesting as their leaders come to town ? just as they did and they still do when they say, ?Yankee, go home!? when American presidents (visit developing countries). This is a new role for China.?