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China competes with US in Africa

In advance of Obama's Africa visit, growing Chinese influence for Africa's resources

China's President Hu Jintao and his Tanzanian counterpart Jakaya Kikwete wave to a crowd upon the Chinese leader's arrival in Dar es Salaam, Feb. 15, 2009. Hu brought a $21.95 million aid gift to Tanzania on the penultimate leg of a tour intended to cement China's ties with Africa. (Stringer/Reuters)

ACCRA, Ghana — While U.S. President Barack Obama was shepherding his economic stimulus bill through Congress, Chinese President Hu Jintao was making his fourth trip to Africa.

Hu has been dishing out funds on the continent for years and doesn’t need name tags to work the greeting lines in African presidential palaces — some of which were built with Chinese money.

Obama may have his popularity and Kenyan heritage to advance American interests in Africa, but the United States increasingly finds itself competing with China when it comes to oil, influence and access to markets.

“The Chinese are not as familiar with Africa as the West,” said Kwame Pianim, an economist who ran for the presidency in Ghana last year. “They are the new boy on the block. But they are a fifth of the world’s population. Of course they are gaining influence. You cannot deny them.”

Obama will be closely watched in July during his scheduled two-day visit to Ghana. It’s his first presidential stop in sub-Saharan Africa. By comparison, Hu has visited 15 sub-Saharan states since 2004, not including several more when he was premier.

Observers want to know what America’s first black president has in mind for Africa. Under President George W. Bush, billions of dollars of development aid were available, but only for states that pledged to fight poverty and advance democracy.

China, meanwhile, isn’t changing its approach. The communist government, which complains about outside interference in its affairs at home, pledged to increase African aid, repressive regimes included, with no conditions attached.

At stake are Africa’s abundant resources, among them oil. China is second to the United States in oil consumption, but China’s consumption has doubled since 1996 and it relies on Africa for about one-third of its imported oil. The United States gets almost 25 percent of its imported oil from Africa, although by volume that’s still three times more than China's African oil intake.

The International Energy Agency projects China’s oil imports will increase four-fold by 2030. China’s state-owned energy company reportedly will bid for a stake of Ghana’s offshore oil, expected to flow in 2011. Other resources exported from Africa include timber, copper and diamonds.

Evidence of China’s charm offensive is all over the continent, by way of pet projects. Chinese funds have built presidential palaces in Mali, Togo, Namibia and Sudan, whose president has been charged with war crimes. They’ve built or are building soccer stadiums in Cameroon, Ghana, Mozambique, Zambia and Tanzania, which Hu visited in February.

“The face-to-face discussions we have form a very important avenue for discussing and understanding each other, especially when it comes to supporting a project,” said Assah Mwambene, spokesman for Tanzania’s foreign affairs ministry.

Hu can’t match Obama’s star power — Africans name newborns “Barack” and sell Obama T-shirts — but he seemingly won’t be outworked.

The Chinese president visited four sub-Saharan states in February and spent nearly two weeks on the continent in 2007, when he visited eight nations. In 2006, Hu hosted 48 African leaders at a Beijing summit in which he pledged $5 billion in loans and credits for African states and Chinese businesses on the continent.