Beijing's increased diplomatic activity in Africa indicates how seriously it takes its competition with Taiwan for legitimacy on the continent. Zeng Qinghong , making his first foreign visit since becoming vice-president more than a year ago, yesterday ended a tour of four African nations in South Africa, which switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing in 1998. He Wenping, an expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences' Institute of West Asia and African Studies, said African nations expected China to play a more assertive role in building an international political and economic order. In response, Beijing made a shift from its strict policy of non-interference and increased its participation in UN peace-keeping operations in Africa. Ties between Africa and Beijing took on new significance when China entered the World Trade Organisation, said Piao Yingji , a specialist in developing economies at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. She said African nations tended to have fewer non-tariff barriers to Chinese exports and the mainland's need for raw materials and energy also brought it closer. However, the intense competition for diplomatic recognition has remained a dominant factor in Beijing's relations with Africa. Although just seven out of the 53 African nations maintain diplomatic ties with Taiwan, a handful have switched back and forth depending on the amount of aid pledged. Professor He said as long as the cross-strait competition existed, the bidding game was unlikely to end.