China's Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi is in South Africa on the final leg of a four-country visit to the continent.

For over a decade now, China's foreign minister has begun the new year with a visit to Africa. This year, Yang has visited Uganda, Rwanda and Malawi, along with his return visit to South Africa.

In Uganda earlier this week, Yang signed agreements on foreign assistance totaling about $75 million, the largest portion for information technology projects. Ugandan Foreign Minister Sam Kutesa said the countries have also discussed construction of a railway line from Uganda to neighboring southern Sudan.  

In Rwanda, Yang dedicated a new building to house Rwanda's Foreign Ministry and attended an opening ceremony for a new Chinese Embassy in Kigali. He also announced a new assistance package for the coming year.

On Thursday, Yang visited Malawi, which last year cut its ties with Taiwan, switching its diplomatic relations to Beijing. Yang is in South Africa, China's largest trading partner on the continent, until Saturday.

Chris Burke, a research associate with the Center for Chinese Studies based in Uganda, says China's presence in the country - as elsewhere on the continent - has grown rapidly in recent years. But he says levels of Chinese assistance are still low compared to the amount received from Western donors, and Chinese trade with African countries remains limited compared with other partners.

"In 1995, trade between China and Africa was just over $5 billion. In 2007, trade was around $74 billion," says Burke. "Trade between South Korea alone was over $150 billion. We're very much at the beginning of this. The scale at the moment's still very small, but it's the size of the increase that's the most interesting phenomenon here."

Burke says China offers African countries assistance with fewer constraints than Western donors. But he says the criticism of China's presence in Africa in Western media, particularly the claim that low-wage Chinese workers are displacing local Africans, is often overblown.

"One of the biggest complaints we hear across the continent is the massive use of Chinese labor," notes Burke. "My colleagues and I have been to a couple dozen of African countries over the last 3 to 4 years. and we've found absolutely no evidence of this."

On his current trip, Yang has avoided China's most controversial partners on the continent, including Zimbabwe and Sudan. But during his visit to Uganda, Yang did warn of the potential dangers of the International Criminal Court issuing an arrest warrant for Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir for war crimes in the western region of Darfur.

China's commerce minister has also been on a separate tour of Africa this week, with stops in Kenya, Zambia, and Angola.

The fourth Forum on China-Africa Cooperation is scheduled to take place in Cairo in November, 2009.