JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - China has been Africa’s No. 1 investor for years and its newly affluent could soon follow by sending large flows of cash into the quickly emerging continent looking for better returns than in Asia.
But any money that comes from private investors in China and other parts of Asia will pale in comparison to the billions of dollars Beijing has sent as it looks to secure the mineral resources it needs to power its hard-charging economy.
Zambia President Rupiah Banda said China understands Africa better than most of the world and has proved itself a trusted ally. His country, with a World Bank-estimated $12.7 billion GDP in 2009, is expected to see about $2.4 billion in Chinese investment this year.
“They have big, big industries with great appetites for what Africa has to offer,” Banda told the Reuters Africa Investment Summit this week.
“In the process, they are making it easier for us to achieve what we want. What we want is to rebuild our countries.”
China forged partnerships with many African states decades ago in their liberation struggles to end colonial rule and later invested in roads, schools, power plants and infrastructure to help the countries grow — helping it import more minerals from countries such as Zambia, Africa’s biggest cooper producer.
As Africa has grown, so has trade with China, which leaped to $126.9 billion in 2010 from about $10 billion in 2000, China’s state news agency Xinhua reported.
“The Chinese have selfish interests, naturally,” Banda said. “We are prepared to do this with anybody else. It is not that this is reserved for China. It is that they are the only ones who seem to see it the way that we see it.”
China, whose biggest African trade partners are its most prominent suppliers of natural resources, has reaped rewards from its largess, but its success has not been as broad as some planners in Beijing would perhaps have liked.
The Eurasia Group said the resources-for-infrastructure deals have helped Chinese construction, telecom and hydro companies, but its oil and mining companies have often failed to overtake Western firms, which dominate those sectors.
“Chinese companies will begin more systematically to incorporate sovereign risk factors and Western best business practices, but their budgetary constraints will remain looser than those of their Western counterparts for some time to come,” it said in a report.
Chinese aid has also helped prop up African leaders scorned and sanctioned by the West for suspected human rights abuses, such as Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, whose government plans to take majority stakes in all foreign mining firms except those from China.
But China has also stood by major democracy South Africa and helped it ascend to the BRIC grouping of fast-emerging economies that also includes Brazil, Russia and India.
The move was seen as a signal by Beijing that it viewed South Africa, the continent’s largest economy, as a politically important state and entryway into Africa even though its economy is less than a quarter the size of the smallest BRIC, Russia.
“It signals that South Africa has something to offer,” Standard Bank (SBKJ.J) head Jacko Maree told the summit.
And Africa may offer Chinese and other Asians a place to park their cash.
The Hong Kong bourse has unique space for investors looking for exposure to Angola’s massive oil industry with a listing of national oil company Sonangol under China Sonangol (1229.HK).
Moscow-based RenCap has annual road shows in Hong Kong where it tries to marry private-wealth investors with capital-hungry African corporates.
Japanese, who park the bulk of about $15 trillion in private savings in domestic bank accounts at just a hair above zero-percent interest, could also be in line to take a look at Africa, home to some of the world’s fastest-growing economies.
“It is infinite. It is massive. The high-nets in Asia, some of them are institutional in size,” Clifford Sacks, Africa head of RenCap, told the summit.
Editing by David Holmes