Chinese Premier Visits Oil-Producing Congo

China's premier visited this oil-producing state Monday as part of a seven-nation African tour to sign deals to keep natural resources flowing to the booming Chinese economy and shore up support in Beijing's diplomatic rivalry with Taiwan.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao promised closer economic ties with the Republic of Congo, which lies next to Africa's petroleum-rich Gulf of Guinea, a major supplier of oil to China.

"I hope that this visit will permit deeper mutual knowledge, enlarge economic cooperation and increase our friendly relations," Wen said in a written statement after an airport welcome by Republic of Congo's president, Denis Sassou Nguesso.

Wen already stopped in Egypt and Ghana and heads next to Angola, which is China's biggest African supplier of oil, accounting for 14 percent of its imports. He will also visit South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda.

China has spent the last few decades building relationships and trade throughout Africa, sending its leaders on regular state visits and financing infrastructure projects in resource-rich markets.

On Sunday, Wen wrapped up a two-day visit to Cairo after meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and signing 10 oil, natural gas and telecommunications deals. He also agreed to give Egypt a $50 million loan and a $10 million grant to encourage investment in an industrial area northwest of the Gulf of Suez.

Wen then headed to Ghana, where he signed an agreement to lend the small West African nation about $66 million to fund a number of projects. One is a plan to upgrade Ghana's communications network by increasing phone lines and improving the country's Internet system.

Earlier this year, Chinese President Hu Jintao signed a series of major business deals with Nigeria, Africa's biggest oil exporter, as well as an oil exploration contract with Kenya.

China is also striving to maintain its diplomatic contacts on the continent, as Taiwan steps up its efforts to gain international recognition — mostly among Third World countries. China and Taiwan split amid civil war in 1949, but Beijing still considers the island part of its territory and demands that its diplomatic partners give no formal recognition to Taipei.

Both Egypt and Ghana stressed their commitment to Beijing's "one China" policy.

China's headway into the continent has generated some criticism. Unlike Western countries also interested in Africa's markets and resources, China steers away from pressuring nations on their human and political rights records.

"This is not its concern. Business is," said Khalil al-Anani, an analyst with al-Siyassah al-Dawliyah, an Egyptian political quarterly published by the semiofficial Al-Ahram daily newspaper.

He said, however, that China's investments in African countries are mostly in state-run infrastructure projects. "These are long-term investments into which Western businesses probably do not want to venture," he said.

Critics also have said that China's arms exports to some war-torn African nations have helped fuel conflicts, including the one in Darfur, Sudan, which has claimed at least 180,000 lives and forced more than 2 million people from their homes over the past three years.

But a top Chinese official defended his country's expanding relations with Sudan as "mutually beneficial." China's Assistant Foreign Minister He Yafei said earlier this month in Beijing that his country's dealings with Sudan have helped to improve that country's human rights records.

"It delivers tenable benefits to the Sudanese people and certainly facilitates Sudan's economic growth and its improvement of its human rights record," he said.

China's oil firms began investing abroad in the late 1990s, after double-digit economic growth outstripped supplies from domestic fields. In the last five years, the communist nation's trade with Africa has grown fourfold, to $40 billion in 2005.

Trade between Egypt and China alone topped $2 billion in 2005 — four times what it was in 2002. China is funding 186 projects in Egypt, with a total investment of $220 million.

Wen denied that China wants to improve relations with Africa to control energy resources, saying its oil deals with African nations were open and transparent.