POWER TRANSFER: Pedestrians pass an advert showing the Great Hall of the People at Tiananmen Square, yesterday. Picture: REUTERS
POWER TRANSFER: Pedestrians pass an advert showing the Great Hall of the People at Tiananmen Square, yesterday. Picture: REUTERS

BEIJING — CHINA wants its blossoming relationship with Africa to be long-lasting and the ruling Communist Party’s incoming leadership is committed to supporting the African Union, senior Chinese officials said on Wednesday.

"What I want to stress is that establishing co-operation and friendship with Africa is an important cornerstone of Chinese foreign policy for the long term," said Zhai Jun, foreign affairs vice-minister for Africa.

"Over the years, China and Africa have learnt to trust each other," he said, speaking on the eve of the party’s 18th congress.

Delegates will select the country’s leaders for the next five years, with Xi Jinping seen as a certainty to replace Hu Jintao as general secretary of the Communist Party, and therefore head of state.

Over the past decade, China’s rapid economic growth has owed much to the importing of African natural resources, particularly oil and metals.

The latest official Chinese figures for China-Africa trade, from January to September this year, put the two-way value at $148.8bn, nearly 22% more than in the same period last year. Total volume last year was $166.6bn, up 31% from the previous year and marking the third successive year when China was Africa’s biggest trading partner. China’s trade with the world has ballooned and officials here say it is the fruit of the "opening-up" reforms adopted by former leader Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s.

Strict Marxist economic policy, such as central state planning, was jettisoned in favour of export-driven competitiveness while the party retained total political control. But Chinese officials insist that they are not putting pressure on African governments to sign free trade agreements (FTAs).

The European Union’s push for economic partnership agreements has met "doubts and resistance" in parts of Africa, Lu Shaye, the director-general of the foreign ministry’s Africa department, told visiting African journalists in Beijing.

"China will fully respect the will of African countries. We won’t force their hands. If they want FTAs we shall give it positive consideration," he said, adding that China was happy to provide Africa with aid and co-operation on a "one-way" basis.

Mr Lu spelt out the extent of China’s support for the African Union (AU).

It covers 600-million yuan ($95.84m) over the next three years to support AU programmes, building an AU conference centre in Addis Ababa, supplying materiel and assistance for AU peacekeepers, chiefly in missions in Darfur and Somalia, financing 1,000 Chinese peacekeepers already in Africa, unspecified contributions to the AU’s operational budget and diplomatic support on African issues in the United Nations Security Council.

The new chairwoman of the AU Commission, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, revealed last month that 97% of the AU’s programmes were funded by donors, thus curtailing Africa’s control of its own core institution.

Mr Lu said there was no way China would ever behave in the way he said western countries had done over the years, such as rebuking African governments or even helping to topple them by military force.

"We have never and will never use our assistance to interfere in the internal workings of the AU," China’s top public servant for Africa said.

He was asked about negative perceptions of Chinese companies and employers in Africa, and specifically about serious incidents in Chinese-operated Zambian mines in recent years.

"The Chinese government strongly criticised these individuals and companies which did not treat African people kindly. Such acts seriously tarnished China’s image in Africa and the world at large," Mr Lu said.

"We ask every company in Africa to respect the local laws and customs. They must live in harmony with local people."

But he said isolated cases were seized on by western media to portray China’s involvement in Africa in the worst possible light.

Mr Zhai said to help "break the monopoly" of western media, China would open a centre for African media in Beijing.

Only three of the 700 accredited foreign journalists in the capital worked for African companies, he said. Officials said the countries were Egypt, Morocco and SA whose ETV channel has a permanent correspondent here.

By contrast, China’s state news agency, Xinhua, and its CCTV channel are expanding their presence in Africa.