China signs deals with Ethiopia as premier starts Africa tour
* Loans, infrastructure deals among those signed
* Li says China will not allow colonialism to return
* Economists urge more balanced trade relations
By Aaron Maasho
ADDIS ABABA, May 4 (Reuters) - China signed a raft of agreements with Ethiopia on Sunday as Premier Li Keqiang arrived for the first leg of his four-nation Africa tour aimed at shoring up burgeoning Sino-Africa ties that saw their trade top $200 billion last year.
This is Li's first visit to Africa since he became premier last year, and follows a trip to the continent by President Xi Jinping in March 2013, when he renewed an offer of $20 billion in loans to Africa between 2013 and 2015.
Africans broadly see China as a healthy counterbalance to Western influence but there are growing calls from policymakers and economists for more balanced trade relations.
In Ethiopia, Chinese firms have invested heavily in recent years with their worth swelling well over $1 billion in 2014, according to official figures.
Beijing is also a key partner in Ethiopia's bid to expand infrastructure such as roads, railways and telecom services.
Chinese ministers and company executives accompanying Li signed 16 deals with their Ethiopian counterparts, including loans and cooperation agreements for the construction of roads and industrial zones.
"This right track in the relationship between us has been laid. I am sure it will lead us to stronger growth in our ties," Li told a press conference.
Huawei Technologies Co Ltd - the world's second largest telecom equipment maker - and ZTE Corp are currently working to introduce a high-speed 4G broadband network in the capital Addis Ababa and a 3G service throughout the country.
Officials said both firms have now signed an $80 million deal to lay optical ground cables to form a nationwide network.
NO COLONIAL AMBITIONS
China has a relationship with Africa which pre-dates its current resource-hungry economic boom.
In previous decades, China's Communist leaders supported national liberation movements and newly independent states across the continent.
Li's tour, which will also take in Nigeria, Angola and Kenya, comes virtually on the 50th anniversary of then-Premier Zhou Enlai's landmark trip to 10 African nations from December 1963 to January 1964.
Beijing has been accused of holding back the continent's economic development by focusing on the pursuit of raw materials rather than the creation of local jobs and markets.
Keen not to be perceived as an imperial master, Li said China was willing to sit down with African countries to resolve any issues that arose over investment projects.
"I wish to assure our African friends in all seriousness that China will never pursue a colonialist path like some countries did, or allow colonialism, which belongs to the past, to reappear in Africa," the official news agency Xinhua quoted Li as saying ahead of his arrival in the Ethiopian capital. (Editing by James Macharia and Sophie Hares)