China?s President Hu Jintao begins an eight-nation tour of Africa today.  He is scheduled to visit Cameroon, Sudan, Namibia, South Africa, Seychelles, Liberia, Zambia, and Mozambique.  On the eve of the trip, Beijing unveiled a new foreign aid package for African countries and announced plans to help eliminate the debt of 33 African nations.  China-watcher Joshua Kurlantzik is a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.  He points out that China?s substantial development needs offer growing trade opportunities with African commodity exporters in a decade that has seen Chinese aid to Africa jump 25-fold.

?It?s pretty substantial.  It?s grown from a hundred million dollars about a decade ago to over two and a half billion the last time that there was a good study done by the National Defense University.  I think it just generally fits in with the idea that China has positioned itself as kind of a fellow developing country that understands the needs of developing countries in Africa in a way that potentially Western countries don?t, and just generally signifies China?s much more high profile global diplomacy in the last few years,? he said.

Kurlantzik says that China?s method of designating aid recipients differs markedly from the way traditional international lending institutions and non-governmental organizations select their beneficiaries.

?They tend to deliver their aid bilaterally, from government to government, rather than working with NGO?s or other actors.  They?re still trying to figure out how to structure their aid programming.  They don?t have a great sense of what they?re going to do with it.  But they?re building infrastructure and doing a lot of things that the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund don?t do.  But at the same time, they deliver their aid to governments, so there?s not much accountability for what happens to the aid,? Kurlantzik said.

Despite these inroads, Joshua Kurlantzik says he doesn?t think that the Chinese assistance program will measure up to the World Bank?s package any time soon.  But he notes that Beijing offers an alternative aid channel to many countries that need it.  Similarly, he notes that China?s African trading partners are finding very competitive markets for their raw goods.

?They?ve just provided a market for everything that Africa produces, particularly commodities.  Obviously, if you have a market and there?s only one major consumer, the West and Japan, and then another major consumer (Africa, and to a certain extent, India) comes into the scene, too, it?s going to drive up the price for all your products, and that?s going to be a major boon to you,? he said.

Bolstering President Hu?s current Africa visit, China?s Commerce Ministry has offered to double the amount of aid and interest-free loans it gives to African countries, and says it will make loans worth three billion dollars available to help African nations build up their infrastructures.  Despite this, Joshua Kurlantzik points out that China has been reluctant to press its African allies toward accepting difficult foreign policy demands from the world community.

?I think generally the Chinese position is they are willing to go along with some degree of trying to put some pressure on when the US really squeezes them, but they don?t want to actually do anything substantial to intervene.  So they contribute to peacekeeping when they feel like it?s something that there?s a lot of international consensus on, but they rarely take the lead and try to push on a country.  So on Darfur, I don?t know.  I think they?ve moved a little bit closer towards allowing in a multinational force, but their policy has not really done very much,? he said.