China sees Egypt as gateway to Africa

China sees Egypt as gateway to Africa

Straddling Asia and Africa with a coastline facing Europe, Egypt has long been at the center of cultural and economic exchange between the East and West. These days, exotic spices have been replaced by denim jeans and caravansaries have turned into sprawling free trade zones in the vast Sahara Desert. China, the Asian economic powerhouse, has rediscovered the millenniums-old trade routes leading to Africa and hopes this economic cooperation can bring increased prosperity to both parties.

In November, a Chinese delegation, headed by Premier Wen Jiabao, traveled to Sharm El Sheik to meet with African counterparts for the fourth Forum on China-Africa Cooperation. The draft action plan produced by the meeting focused on promoting economic interaction and increased development aid for Africa.

This meeting marks the tenth anniversary of strategic cooperation between Egypt and China. Egypt was both the first Arab and African country to establish such a relationship with the Asian nation based on their, “cordial friendship and mutual assistance,” according to Wen. Chinese. Leaders from both nations like to highlight their similarities: ancient civilizations that are now large, developing nations, shared ideas of state sovereignty, economic development and “democracy of international relations,” according to Chinese Foreign Ministry documents.

By addressing shortfalls in transportation, energy and communications infrastructure on the continent, China hopes to open new markets for investment in agriculture, infrastructure and other industries.

In one such project, China is working to advance the construction of an economic and trade zone in Suez. This project would allow greater investment by Chinese companies in Egypt and facilitate trade between the two nations as a means of combating the global financial slowdown.

Trade between the two nations totaled $6.2 billion in 2008 with the lion’s share, $5.8 billion, coming in the form of Chinese finished and manufactured goods to Egypt. Exports heading to China are mostly comprised of raw materials, such as cotton, marble and petroleum products, and saw a 79 percent increase in 2008.

However, China’s role on the continent is not limited to economic investment. Measures announced at the summit include projects for the whole of Africa aimed at, “improvement of people’s well-being, health care, education and other social development programs, the construction of agricultural and basic infrastructures, and the protection of eco-environment,” said the Chinese Premier after the summit.

China also announced that it will not cut aid to African nations in spite of the current financial downturn and backed up its pledge with a plan to give $10 billion in loans to support African countries.

While some have alleged that Chinese aid in Africa amounts to a form of “neo-colonialism” aimed at exploiting the continent’s natural resources and providing a market for Chinese goods, officials refute this claim. They point to China’s assistance in building schools, hospitals and transportation projects on the continent.

Officials also highlight that China provides a growing market for African goods with the total trade volume doubling since 2006 to over USD100 billion. The Chinese Premier assured the international media, “our assistance to and cooperation with Africa is selfless and has no political strings attached.”

The economic giant, which many hope to be the engine of economic salvation in this current world crisis, also promotes robust cultural ties in Africa, and in Egypt particularly. The two nations exchange over 1,000 university students each year with four universities in Cairo open to students from China. Additionally, over 8 million Chinese tourists visit Egypt’s ancient monuments and Red Sea resorts each year.

In February 2010, the Chongqing Symphony Orchestra will come to Egypt as part of Chinese New Year celebrations, playing at the Cairo Opera House and other theaters throughout the country.

Meeting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Wen remarked, “I feel at home when I am in Egypt.” As Chinese investment in Egypt and aid to Africa increases, the Asian nation’s presence will become much less foreign.

Reviving and strengthening the old trade routes connecting China with Africa will bring increased cooperation and cultural understanding between Beijing, Cairo and the rest of the continent.