Analysts have warned that the reluctance of African leaders to challenge their benefactor comes at a high price. Liesl Louw-Vaudran reports.
African leaders cheered when Chinese politburo chief Jia Qinglin inaugurated the African Union's headquarters, paid for by China, in Addis Ababa this year. There was no inkling of unease at receiving such a generous gift.
But in the corridors some wondered about the symbolic significance of the $200-million headquarters and the way African leaders seemed to embrace China's aggressive investment and trade in Africa. "Gifts are generally not innocent," said Professor Bola Akinterinwa, director general of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs.
Last week President Jacob Zuma, speaking at the fifth Forum for China-Africa Co-operation, created something of a stir when he described the unequal trade relations between Africa and China, characterised by "the supply of raw materials, other products and technology transfer", as "unsustainable".
"Africa's past economic experience with Europe dictates a need to be cautious when entering into partnerships with other economies," he said.
China's trade with African countries reached $160-billion last year, a thirteenfold increase in the past decade, and investment is said to be up to $15-billion. Although the volumes favour Africa because of the export of large amounts of raw materials, the value of Chinese-manufactured goods far outstrip that of African exports.
At the summit, Chinese President Hu Jintao said China would provide an additional $20-billion of credit to African countries.
Following Zuma's remarks, some are asking whether this is an indication of a shift in thinking by African leaders. Do they now want to be seen as wary of the dangers of a neocolonialist approach by China? Could the exit from the scene of some of China's biggest proponents, such as Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who has taken ill in Brussels, signal a more cautious approach by the AU to China's growing influence?
Daouda Cissé, from the centre for Chinese studies at Stellenbosch University, said Zuma's statement was welcomed by academics and civil society members, who had been raising concerns about Sino-African relations for some time.
"For the first time, an African head of state has now clearly mentioned these issues. Coming from a policymaker, this type of remark is good, because the most important negotiations for investments between China and Africa happen at the state-to-state level."
However, if African leaders are serious about changing the imbalance between Africa and China, it is not going to be easy.
"Africa does need foreign investments for its economic growth," Cissé said. "The volume of trade and investments in Sino-Africa relations will not change a lot in the forthcoming years."
The only way change can take place is if Africa can diversify its exports to move away from raw materials to include, for example, processed goods, manufactured products and services.
China would also need to take sustainable development into account in the countries where it had a presence, Cissé said.
But African heads of state have been hesitant to raise this issue openly. In some cases, governments such as those in Ghana and Nigeria have capitalised on the long-standing resentment of street traders about the presence of Chinese small businesses and expelled illegal Chinese. But, generally, it has not been followed up at a government-to-government level.
China's most vocal critic on the continent, Zambia's President Michael Sata, seems to have backed down on the issue since becoming head of state last year and China's stake in Zambia's copper industry seems secure for now. Following several government visits, a bilateral agreement was signed in March this year, guaranteeing further grants, technical co-operation and investment.
In Zambia, as elsewhere, one of the major gripes about the Chinese is the large number of unskilled labourers brought in to work on the mines and construction sites.
The generous aid and grants, dished out from Ethiopia to Angola, are also not bound to political conditions but tied to the use of Chinese companies, equipment and contract workers.
There are also serious environmental concerns about Chinese investments. For example, a study done on Chinese aid to Ethiopia by the African Forum on Debt and Development, a civil society organisation based in Zimbabwe, rings alarm bells about the lack of environmental impact studies.
"China has either low or undeveloped environmental, health and safety standards in several sectors, even within China (for example in mining), and the use of Chinese companies and contract workers for a majority of Chinese aid, trade and investment projects in Ethiopia has the effect of transferring these weaknesses to Ethiopia, because regulation is weak in Ethiopia," the forum states its 2011 report.
China is aware of the feeling among Africans that it is on the continent merely to take out raw materials and inundate the informal markets with cheap goods.
At last week's summit, Hu also announced that China would train 30 000 personnel in various sectors, offer 18 000 government scholarships and build cultural and vocational training facilities. China would also send 1500 medical personnel to Africa, he said.
To boost its image and increase its soft power in Africa, China is greatly increasing its media presence. As African leaders enter the new AU headquarters, a big digital screen offers the latest updates from its news agency Xinhua. And, in many countries, when the state TV ceases to broadcast it is CCTV, rather than CNN, that appears on the screen.
Many African policymakers also shy away from criticism because they admire the Chinese economy. They are fascinated by the state-led capitalist model, which they believe is the answer to economic growth in developing countries. Achieving double-digit growth without embracing democracy is an attractive option for many.
But, as power shifts from West to East and some predict Shanghai will soon replace London and New York as the world's financial capital, African leaders can ill afford to be seen to be anti-Chinese.