PRETORIA, South Africa (AP) — Welcomed by a military band and a guard of honor, Chinese President Xi Jinping began a state visit to South Africa on Wednesday, part of China's effort to strengthen economic ties with Africa.
The Chinese government became Africa's largest international trading partner in 2009, according to the South African Institute of International Affairs. Trade was valued at over $201 billion last year, a sharp rise from just $10.6 billion in 2000. This is Xi's second visit to the country — the first was in 2013 when the Chinese president toured several African states.
Xi met his South African counterpart President Jacob Zuma in an official ceremony in the capital Pretoria. After the red carpet procession, each president was flanked by row of cabinet ministers, who were part of the talks on issues such as financial cooperation and infrastructure projects. Xi's visit comes ahead of the Forum on China Africa Cooperation, a meeting that brings together African and Chinese leaders every three years.
The two leaders watched as cabinet ministers and industry leaders signed 26 bilateral agreements worth about $6.5 billion, that include a $500 million loan to Eskom, South Africa's struggling national power supplier, according to a statement released by the South African government.
Xi's visit to South Africa comes a day after meeting Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe in Harare, where the Chinese leader signed deals worth more than $4 billion, according to Zimbabwean newspapers. In addition to China's mining interests in cash-strapped Zimbabwe, the 12 agreements cover industries such as power and transport, and prevent double taxation for investors, according to the Herald, a state-owned Zimbabwean newspaper.
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari is travelling to South Africa this week, where he will also meet Xi, his office said in a statement. The two leaders are to discuss a coastal railway project in Nigeria, which Buhari's government hopes will be financed by a $12 billion Chinese loan, the statement said.
China's economic downturn has had a knock-on effect on African countries that export raw materials to China's once-booming industries.
"I think that we're all in the same boat if you're a producer in the global economy," said South Africa's Minister of Trade and Industry, Rob Davies. "The demand is lower so the prices are lower."
Xi may have to spend some time on this trip reassuring African leaders that trade relations will remain strong, said Aubrey Hruby, a Washington D.C.-based economist. The Chinese government is unrivalled in its willingness to fund big infrastructure projects in Africa, although American companies still provide the highest foreign direct investment to African countries, she said.
"It's a mutually beneficial perspective," said Hruby. "There are not a lot of entities in the world that would fund African infrastructure the way China has."
While Beijing has traditionally maintained a policy of non-interference, staying out of Africa's political affairs, its decision to establish a permanent representative at the African Union's headquarters in Ethiopia may signal stronger political interaction, the South African Institute of International Affairs said.