Chinese businessmen are taking a long-term view and pursuing strategic expansion in Africa even though China's multiplying investments on the continent have lost some luster in the global downturn.
Beijing and Chinese companies have pledged tens of billions of dollars to Africa in loans and investments mostly to secure raw materials for the world's fastest-growing large economy.
That long-term interest remains intact, despite a worldwide economic slump that has hit China's exports to the rich world and a sharp decline in Africa's mineral shipments to China.
China-Africa trade has surged by an average 30% a year this decade, soaring to nearly $107 billion in 2008.
“China is in Africa for the long term, and strategically,” said David Shinn, a former US ambassador to Ethiopia and Burkina Faso who teaches at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs.
“They will not veer from this, in my view,” he said.
Far from retreating, many Chinese businessmen are hunting for bargains.
Chinese and Indian firms have expressed interest in taking over Zambia's top cobalt producer Luanshya Copper Mines since it halted operations in December, Zambian state media reported.
South Africa's Standard Bank, itself 20% owned by the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC), said last month it was advising Chinese mining clients on buying opportunities in Africa and elsewhere.
“They are looking at 2009 and saying 'This is a time we see as a very big buying opportunity. We've got the backing from government, we've got the financial means',” Thys Terblanche, the bank's head of mining and metals investment banking, told Reuters.
Beyond mining, Chinese state companies are pushing ahead with strategic energy sector investments and infrastructure; private outfits are continuing to expand in technology areas.
“Some developed Western countries hit by the financial crisis are reducing their investment in Africa. Objectively, this is a powerful opportunity for Chinese businesses to expand their investment and market share in Africa,” Cui Yongqian, a former Chinese ambassador to the Republic of Congo and Central African Republic, told a China-Africa trade forum this month.
Trade with Angola, China's biggest source of African crude oil, reached $25.3 billion in 2007 and Beijing has offered Luanda $5 billion in oil-backed loans.
Shenzhen-based Huawei Technologies, China's biggest telecoms equipment maker, is pushing south from its established stamping ground in North Africa.
“I see no reason why they would want to decrease their investments in the telecommunications sector, because that's profitable for them,” said George Washington University's Shinn.
“It will vary according to sector and country ... It's very dangerous to generalize about the China-Africa relationship,” he said. “They will certainly make tactical retreats where the economy requires it.”
Even China's slower economic growth far outpaces that of other major economies. Beijing says it can achieve 8% growth in 2009. The IMF says it may cut its forecast to about 5%, from the 9% it predicted in October.
While competitors lay off workers and delay new projects, China Non-Ferrous Metals Corporation is opening a copper smelter this month in Chambishi town, which Zambia has transformed into a tax-free economic zone to attract Chinese investment.
Zambian President Rupiah Banda and China's Trade Minister Cheng Deming launched a second economic zone this month near the capital Lusaka, where Chinese firms will assemble electrical goods such as television sets and cellphones for export.
“Zambia is still an attractive investment destination (and this will give) confidence to existing firms operating here not to start scaling down their operations,” Banda said.
Zambia's Copper Belt is witnessing a growth in Chinese deals.
“In Zambia, mining investment is large-scale and long-term,” said Xing Houyuan, director of multinational business at China's Academy of International Trade and Economic Cooperation, which is affiliated to Beijing's Commerce Ministry.
“I don't see any likelihood of a pullback ... Companies won't give up investment plans because of the short term. The biggest impact is likely to be on projects that are still in the planning stage, where the money had not really been committed yet,” Xing said.
In Liberia, China Union has just signed a $2.6 billion contract to develop the Bong iron ore deposit.
China also insists the slowdown will not dampen interest.
“We will continue to have a vigorous aid program here and Chinese companies will continue to invest as much as possible in Africa because it is a win-win solution,” Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said in South Africa in mid-January.
However, the global slowdown has forced some Chinese businesses to close operations in Africa and prompted a re-think of some of the multi-billion-dollar mega-deals that blazed a trail across the world's poorest continent.
Democratic Republic of Congo and Guinea are cases in point.
DR Congo rode the boom in commodities to attract a wave of foreign investment in its rich but long-neglected copper, cobalt, gold and other mineral resources after post-war elections in 2006. Now that dream is fading.
“We have one processing mill and several workshops in Congo. We have closed them. There are many Chinese-invested firms in Congo and I understand most of them have shut down their operations,” said a marketing director at a private firm in China's eastern province of Zhejiang, which supplies cobalt and nickel compounds for use in mobile phone batteries.
“I don't think we will resume production in the factories in Congo any time soon. We expect the economic slowdown could worsen in this year and weigh on the prices further,” he said, requesting anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Africa's heavy dependence on resource exports means it feels any squeeze more painfully. Global trade fell an annualized 3.7% between September 2008 and November last year, its biggest drop since 2001.
Congo's franc has fallen 20% against the dollar in less than four months and foreign reserves are at a five-year low. The government is seeking a $200 million bailout from the International Monetary Fund's Exogenous Shocks Facility.
A much-trumpeted $9 billion package of Chinese loans, investment and infrastructure projects in return for Congolese minerals contracts may be cut back to $6 billion, a diplomat in Kinshasa said, partly to appease the IMF which has expressed voiced concern at Congo taking on such huge debts.
Guinea, the world's top exporter of bauxite aluminum ore, had hoped for its own multi-billion-dollar deal with China to build hydropower dams, roads and bridges in return for mines.
Talks have dragged as the economic climate has worsened, hampered by Guinea's instability and a coup last month after the death of President Lansana Conte, said Ahmed Tidiane Diallo, director-general for mining projects at the Mines Ministry.
Gabon, similarly eager to cement a 1.6 trillion CFA franc ($3 billion) contract to develop the 360-million-tonne Belinga iron ore deposit, has accused its Chinese partners of dragging their feet amid the uncertain economic environment. (Reuters)