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Glitzy new AU headquarters a symbol of China-Africa ties

ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - Standing on what was once Ethiopia’s oldest maximum security prison, the new African Union headquarters funded by China is a symbol of the Asian giant’s push to stay ahead in Africa and gain greater access to the continent’s resources.

A traditional dancer wearing a Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic flag performs during the inauguration of the new African Union (AU) building in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, January 28, 2012. REUTERS/Noor Khamis

Critics point to an imbalance in what they see as the new “Scramble for Africa”. But the prospect of growing Chinese economic influence is welcomed by African leaders, who see Beijing as a partner to help build their economies at a time when Europe and the United States are mired in economic turmoil.

And Africans are hoping for more Chinese largesse.

“The future prospects of our partnership are even brighter,” Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said on Saturday at the new headquarters’ multi-storey amphitheatre, where an African heads of states’ summit will take place on Sunday and Monday.

“China - its amazing re-emergence and its commitments for a win-win partnership with Africa - is one of the reasons for the beginning of the African renaissance,” he said.

The brown marble and glass monolith was fully paid for by China, right down to the office furniture, and cost $200 million. The office complex and almost 100 metre (330 foot) tower is Addis Ababa’s tallest building by far.

For the past decade, Africa has recorded economic growth of an average of 5 percent but its under-developed infrastructure has in part hindered its capacity to develop further.

Chinese companies are changing that. They are building roads and investing in the energy sector, and are active in areas such as telecoms technology.

China’s most senior political adviser, Jia Qinglin, said trade between the two partners had grown to $150 billion, and the unveiling of the headquarters was a “milestone” in the ties between China and Africa.

As the biggest consumer of iron-ore, China has a relentless hunger for African minerals and energy.

Beijing now appears keener to flex its diplomatic muscle in the continent. It has also contributed $4.5 million for the African Union peacekeeping force battling Islamist militants in Somalia.

Outside the complex, hundreds of Chinese support staff, delegates and officials snapped pictures of their country’s most ostentatious presence yet in Africa.

Critics point to land grabs and mistreatment of African workers on Chinese-funded projects. Even when it comes to job opportunities, in some instances China brings in teams of workers and technical experts.

Yet African officials insist they aren’t being manipulated by China, and say the relationship is not based on aid but on trade and development.

“There are people who still consider Africans like children who can be easily manipulated. The good thing about this partnership is that it’s give and take,” the Democratic Republic of Congo’s ambassador to Washington, Faida Mitifu, told Reuters.