China has outmaneuvered everybody else in the strategic calculations with respect to cultivating relationships with Africa. In the recently concluded fifth Ministerial Conference of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) on China-Africa strategic partnership, President Hu Jintao pledged a US$20 billion of credit line for African countries in the next three years—double the amount of what China promised to lend Africa at the last joint forum three years ago.

FOCAC is a strategically-oriented move launched in October 2000 between China and African countries for collective consultation, dialogue, and partnership. The Conference happens in every three years and 500 participants, including heads of state and top minsters from China and 50 African countries participated in this year’s conference in Beijing, including the presidents of South Africa and Niger, the prime minister of Kenya, etc.

Addressing the delegates, the Chinese president, Hu Jintao, stated that “Chinese and African people have always treated each other as equals with sincerity and friendship”. Hu asserted Chinese commitment to African countries’ independent choice of development paths, and he condemned any kind of external interference, a direct criticism on western policies and interferences in Africa and elsewhere. This carries particular importance as the Western world has actively participated in the Arab Spring, particularly in Libya, and the confrontation is reaching to a new level in the case of Syria or Iran.  These uprisings have adversely affected the internal security of some African countries and have wider repercussions in authoritarian China as the country has witnessed people’s uprisings at unprecedented levels in recent years.

Emphasizing the importance of increased assistance to Africa, Hu announced that China will build more technology demonstration centers and implement the “African Talents Program” to train 30000 personnel, offer 18,000 government scholarships, build cultural and vocational skills training facilities, and send 1,500 medical personnel in next three years to boost the new type of China-Africa strategic partnership. Apart from development assistance, China also promised to initiate the ‘China-Africa Cooperative Partnership for Peace and Security’ and train African armed forces and peace-keepers, implying more Chinese boots in Africa, above the U.N mandated system.

The past few years have seen the most robust high-level exchanges between China and Africa as Beijing has engaged Africa quite seriously. President Hu Jintao visited Africa four times covering 18 African countries. Premier Wen Jiabao, Vice President Xi Jinping, Cabinet ministers and top communist party officials have visited Africa on several occasions. About 30 African heads of state or government and 20 speakers of parliament visited China from 2007 to 2011.

The Chinese business model in Africa, linking aid, trade, and investment involves extensive infrastructure projects and granting loans as a mean to access natural resources and trade expansion. China’s aid to Africa has expanded rapidly as the continent has become a major source of oil from Sudan and Angola, and copper from Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In 2011, trade between China and Africa reached US$166.3 billion, an increase of 16 times from the 2000 level making China the largest trading partner of Africa. African exports to China are dominated by oil and natural resources and have grown rapidly from US$5.6 billion in 2000 to US$93.2 billion in 2011. Till mid-2012, China had invested US$45 billion in Africa, including over US$15 billion of direct investment, which was less than US$500 million 10 years ago. Over 2,000 Chinese enterprises are doing businesses in 50 African countries. Mining, construction, the financial sector, and manufacturing account for about 90% of Chinese investment in Africa.

India’s or even the U.S.’s bilateral trade, investment and aid with Africa pale in comparison to those of China, particularly in growth terms. Though India has started to engage Africa seriously in the last few years, China’s economic hard power capabilities have successfully blocked Indian investment in Africa’s primary sector, especially in critical countries such as Angola, Algeria, Zambia, Sudan, etc.

Led by a vibrant private sector, India’s bilateral trade with Africa has grown rapidly in recent years—from around $1 billion in 2001 to about $50 billion last year, the country’s officials are now targeting $70 billion by 2015. Like China, India is turning to Africa as it seeks to diversify its energy supplies in order to support its booming economy. In the landmark India-Africa Forum Summit in 2011, the second since 2008, India offered a $5 billion loans package to Africa as well as $700 million for new institutions and training programs.

It will be a misnomer to compare India and China in Africa. Though India is trying to catch up with China in terms of geopolitical influence, it cannot match Beijing’s political and economic influence in the continent. The nature of the Chinese economy far greater than India’s makes competing in Africa an extremely difficult task. The presence of high-profile Chinese ventures on the continent further challenges India’s cultivation of strategic ties with Africa: a situation which could eventually impact on India’s energy security, given its dependency on African resources.

Many in the western world criticize China’s African policy support for authoritarian regimes, military juntas, and plundering of resources with little concern on democracy, the environment, and human right issues.

The European Union describes China’s business with Africa as “chequebook” diplomacy and insists that unlike China, it would continue to pressure its African partners on democracy, good governance, and human rights.

Echoing similar views, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, in her recent eleven day African tour covering at least seven nations, urged African nations to embrace democracy and partnerships with responsible foreign powers, and she said, “The days of having outsiders come and extract the wealth of Africa for themselves leaving nothing behind should be over in the 21st century”, accusing China indirectly.

African countries are in a dilemma in these geostrategic games. Many African countries are doubtful about China’s real intentions. Chinese state-owned firms in Africa face criticism for using imported labor to build government-financed projects and over exploitation of resources. For example, The China Non-Ferrous Metals Mining Corporation’s huge investments in the copper fields of Zambia became a big issue national over the treatment of domestic laborers and the environment.

This dilemma was reverberated in speeches of African leaders in the conference. According Jacob Zuma, “this kind of (resource based) trade is unsustainable in the long term and need to be cautious when entering into new partnerships”. But, certainly many African countries do appreciate the Chinese no-strings-attached approach to aid.

FOCAC also called for reforms in international institutions and global economic governance as unreformed institutions is a major constraint to Africa’s development. African countries announced their support to the BRICS countries in setting up a new development bank, a contradictory move challenging the IMF and World Bank dominated economic system.

What drives China into Africa can be classified into three categories: strategic, to acquire oil and strategic metals; business, to expand the market for Chinese products; and political, to nurture partnerships including for military support in future.

Ultimately, the Chinese has been successful in conveying to African countries that China is also a developing country and can serve them better by sharing its development experiences that reflect the spirit of South-South cooperation.