China and Africa are well suited for one another. African development is being held back by a lack of infrastructure and Chinese firms have a proven track record in building power, communications and transport networks. Premier Li Keqiang's offer of Chinese assistance to link the continent's capitals with high-speed railways would improve opportunities and growth potential. Such a project would be mutually beneficial and help allay concerns by some Africans that Beijing is only being driven by self-interest.
The big natural-resource deals signed by Chinese leaders during visits to Africa gives uninformed observers the impression that the main interest in the continent is its mineral wealth. Angola and Nigeria, stops along with Ethiopia and Kenya during Li's week-long trip, are significant sources of oil for China (Angola is the second-biggest after Saudi Arabia). Negative perceptions have been furthered by Chinese companies that have disregarded laws and regulations. Global interest in China's rise means that such incidents are given wide media coverage - as in March, when oil workers in Chad and Niger went on strike over claimed unequal pay.
But it is wrong to paint intentions as being similar to those of colonial powers which stripped Africa of its resources and gave little in return. China's engagement with the continent is different. It surpassed the US in 2009 as the biggest trading partner and Li said in Ethiopia as he began his trip on Monday the volume would double by 2020. At that time, Chinese direct investment is also expected to quadruple to US$100 billion.
Any relationship on such a scale is bound to have ups and downs - Li described them as "growing pains". That is especially so for Africa, the world's second-fastest growing region, which is as rife with poverty, corruption, ethnic and religious divisions and battles over resources as it is with economic potential. The World Economic Forum on Africa, which ended its annual session in Abuja yesterday, aimed to come up with initiatives to help overcome such hurdles. China, through its trade, investment and aid, is already doing that.
Li pledged US$12 billion in fresh aid and raised the possibility of the high-speed-railway network, a sure-fire way to improve pan-African development. He has signed trade and economic co-operation deals worth billions of dollars. Chinese need to be sensitive to African laws and culture. By working together, the continent's potential can be properly realised.