Hillary Clinton's visit to Africa this week comes against a background of rapidly rising Chinese trade and investment with the continent. Analysts say a major goal of the U.S. secretary of state's trip is to make sure the United States is not left behind in the competition for trade and influence.
China surpassed the United States in 2009 to become Africa's largest trading partner, and the volume of trade has continued to rise dramatically. The two-way exchange was valued at $160 billion last year, compared to just $10.6 billion a decade earlier and just $1 billion 20 years before that.
Chinese aid and investment in Africa have also grown rapidly as Beijing looks to the resource-rich continent as a source of raw materials for its rapidly industrializing economy. Chinese officials announced last month that some 2,000 Chinese companies now have dealings in Africa, with investments totaling $14.7 billion – an increase of 60 percent in two years.
Chinese Premier Hu Jintao lauded the relationship at a recent forum in Beijing attended by senior officials from more than 50 African countries, including South Africa's President Jacob Zuma, Côte d'Ivoire's President Alassane Dramane Ouattara and Kenya's Prime Minister Raila Odinga.
“The Chinese people care about China-Africa growth, and ask us to take a greater role and responsibility. Approach new areas, create new goals, fix new mistakes and resolve new problems.”
Hu said the Chinese people are asking their government to take more responsibility for fostering economic growth in Africa.
He also issued five pledges to the continent, including a promise of $20 billion in foreign aid — twice as much as was promised three years earlier.
While looking to Africa for needed raw materials, China is also finding the continent to be an increasingly important market for its manufactured products.
According to a White Paper issued in 2010 by China's State Council, China exports to Africa in the 1980s and 1990s were mainly light industrial products, food and chemical products. But in the past decade, China has been increasingly sending Africa machinery, automobiles and electronic items.
China's increasing economic presence in Africa translates into greater political influence.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appeared unworried about that at the opening of last month's conference in Beijing, where he said Chinese involvement in Africa is helping the continent to achieve its Millennium Development Goals.
Others, however, say China's presence in Africa has prompted concerns about labor abuses and corruption, and some U.S. officials in Washington have criticized China for financially supporting countries with poor human rights records.
Titus Mbuya, the managing director of MMEGI newspaper in Botswana, called those accusations unfair.
“We'd love to have more (Chinese investments), because African countries need to create jobs for their people. If China brings investments, establishes companies in African countries, jobs will be created. China has never colonized Africa.”
China's White Paper made no effort to hide the political implications of the country's involvement in Africa. It said the growth of trade and investment is helping to promote the establishment of “a fair and rational new international political and economic order.”