China's premier Li Keqiang set for first Africa trip

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.

- Growing ties -

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.

"Chinese investment in Ethiopia is showing significant expansion in both quality and quantity, and it currently stands at over US $1 billion," Ethiopia's foreign ministry said in a statement.

The high-rise AU headquarters, Addis Ababa's tallest building, was built and donated by China at a cost of $200 million in 2012. Li is expected to address leaders of the 54-member pan-African bloc.

Li is scheduled to spend three days in Nigeria, where he will meet President Goodluck Jonathan and also attend the World Economic Forum on Africa, which starts in the capital, Abuja, on Wednesday.

Nigeria's government said bilateral ties between the two nations have been growing since they first established diplomatic relations in 1971 and Li's visit would build on those links.

The foreign ministry said six major agreements would be signed during the three-day trip, including "economic and technical cooperation", aviation, banking and health projects to combat malaria.

In Kenya, Li's talks with President Uhuru Kenyatta will focus on "ways to strengthen cooperation in trade, investment, infrastructure development, energy, finance, agriculture, aviation, space technology, information and communication", its foreign ministry said in a statement.

Key Chinese projects in Kenya include a batch of energy projects and the building of a new railway track from the Indian Ocean coast to the western border with Uganda.

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 $25 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".

Angola, which pumps just under two million barrels of crude a day, is sub-Saharan Africa's second oil producer after Nigeria, and is Africa's No. 3 economy after Nigeria and South Africa.

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.