DAR ES SALAAM - China's new President Xi Jinping jetted into Tanzania Sunday at the start of a three-nation Africa tour that underscores Beijing's growing presence in the resource-rich continent.
Xi flew into the east African nation's economic capital Dar es Salaam from Moscow, the opening stage of his first foreign trip since being anointed president 10 days ago. He is set to give a keynote speech on Monday covering relations with Africa and sign some 20 trade, development and cultural accords, before heading to Durban, South Africa to join an emerging economies summit.
He wraps up the African tour with a visit to Congo-Brazzaville.
"China-Africa cooperation is comprehensive," Xi said ahead of the trip, adding that Beijing valued "friendly relationships with all African countries, no matter whether they are big or small, strong or weak, rich or poor". "No matter whether it is rich or poor in resources, China treats it equally and actively carries out pragmatic cooperation that benefits both sides," he said.
China is the second-largest foreign investor in Tanzania, with stakes in agriculture, coal, iron ore and infrastructure, and Xi will be keen "to showcase that China's approach to Africa is different from the West," said China expert Jonathan Holslag, head of research at the Brussels Institute of Contemporary China Studies.
"Tanzania offers Xi an important opportunity to highlight the historical dimension of the Sino-African relations. Today, China is reviving this partnership with Tanzania by investing heavily in its infrastructure" such as railways that could provide a vital link to Chinese-run mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Holslag said.
China's first contacts with Africa came with the sea voyages of Zheng He, a Chinese Muslim admiral who led expeditions to the east African coast in the 1400s, but little followed for centuries.
"Xi's decision to visit Tanzania first suggests that China is not merely interested in short-term economic gains, but that it is interested in developing long-lasting partnerships with African countries," said Frans-Paul van der Putten, senior research fellow at the Netherlands Institute of International Relations.
China, which has risen to become the world's second-largest economy, sources many of its raw materials from Africa.
A new Chinese diaspora has seen huge numbers of traders and small business operators establish themselves across the continent, which has higher growth rates than Europe or the United States.
Chinese imports from Africa soared 20-fold in a decade to reach $113 billion last year, according to Chinese government statistics, and China became the continent's largest trading partner in 2009. Highlighting the changing relationship, Beijing hosted a summit of 48 African leaders in 2006.
In South Africa, where two-way trade totalled $59.9 billion last year - nearly one-third of total China-Africa trade - Xi will hold talks with President Jacob Zuma and join the leaders of Brazil, India, Russia and South Africa at the BRICS summit of emerging economies.
China has lent oil-rich Congo-Brazzaville, Xi's last stop, billions of dollars under a series of agreements, financing a 500-kilometre (300-mile) road linking the capital to commercial hub Pointe-Noire, a 120-megawatt hydroelectric dam and other projects.
A presidential source told AFP that Brazzaville considered Beijing an "essential partner" and their relationship "immaculate".
But China's presence in Africa has also been accompanied by periodic tensions.
Lamido Sanusi, governor of Nigeria's central bank, blasted China this month in an opinion piece in the Financial Times, saying the relationship was one in which Africa sold its resources for manufactured goods.
"This was also the essence of colonialism," he wrote. "The British went to Africa and India to secure raw materials and markets. Africa is now willingly opening itself up to a new form of imperialism."
China's vice foreign minister Zhai Jun, who estimated there are between one and two million Chinese entrepreneurs in Africa, acknowledged "growing pains" in the relationship, which he ascribed to causes including "lack of mutual understanding".