China's premier Li Keqiang set for first Africa trip

BEIJING - Chinese Premier Li Keqiang is to visit four countries in Africa on his first tour of the continent since assuming his position a little over a year ago, seeking to nurture a booming economic relationship.

Li is scheduled to visit Ethiopia, Nigeria, Angola and Kenya during the trip, which begins Sunday and lasts for a week, officials said. It also includes a visit to the headquarters of the African Union in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa.

The trip follows one Chinese President Xi Jinping made to the continent last year, shortly after taking office, a journey that underscored Africa’s importance to China, the world’s second-largest economy.

Xi became state president and Li became premier in March last year, culminating a once-a-decade power transition in Communist Party-ruled China.

China’s economic growth has been partially fuelled by African natural resources including oil.

“It is an important visit oriented towards the whole continent,” Zhang Ming, Chinese vice-minister for foreign affairs, told reporters, stressing that Li will be visiting Africa’s eastern, western and southern regions.

It “highlights the great importance we attach to China-Africa relations", he added.

Zhang also said that renewing the “traditional friendship” between China and Africa as well as advancing a “new type of strategic partnership” were goals of the visit.

After arriving in Ethiopia on Sunday, Li journeys to Nigeria on Tuesday before moving on to Angola on Thursday and finally Kenya on Friday, China’s foreign ministry said.

According to official Chinese data, since 2009, China has been Africa’s largest trading partner for five consecutive years and an important source for new investments on the continent.

Assistant Minister of Commerce Zhang Xiangchen said that by the end of 2013, China’s direct investments to Africa reached US$25 billion (S$31.32 billion).

Stressing traditional China-Africa friendship, Zhang Ming noted that Li’s visit coincides with the 50th anniversary of late Chinese premier Zhou Enlai’s landmark visit to Africa in 1964.

Zhang said that nearly 60 cooperation documents will be signed on the visit, while China and the AU will jointly issue two important documents “on their mutual cooperation”.

Asked about the nature of the business deals expected, Zhang Xiangchen, the commerce ministry official, said: “We will sign many agreements, not only about oil”.

China’s growing role in Africa has also sparked tensions in some countries.

In February last year, for example, the Zambian government seized control of a Chinese-owned coal company due to poor compliance with safety and environmental standards, its mines minister said.

And in 2012 workers at the mine killed a Chinese manager during rioting over work conditions.

Acclaimed naturalist Jane Goodall told AFP in an interview earlier this year that China was exploiting Africa’s resources just as European colonisers did, with disastrous effects for the environment.

But South African President Jacob Zuma told CNBC Africa that China does business with his country on an equal footing, unlike some Western powers he criticised for dealing with South Africans as “former colonial subjects”.