China's President Hu Jintao arrived in Mali Thursday at the start of a whirlwind African tour which Beijing says is focused more on political ties than on his country's hunt for commodities.
Hu was greeted by his Malian counterpart Amadou Toumani Toure on his arrival at Bamako airport. The leaders made no statements before moving to the presidential palace for an official welcome ceremony for the Chinese leader.
The two heads of state were to sign several cooperation agreements later Thursday.
Although Mali is Africa's third biggest gold producer and is one of the continent's biggest cotton producers and recently discovered uranium, the Chinese authorities insist the visit is not about extending its access to Mali's resources.
Hu's African tour will also take him to Senegal, Tanzania and Mauritius as part of efforts to strengthen ties with the continent, an important source of raw materials for China as well as a growing market for Chinese exports.
Beijing has stressed that the trip will focus more on shoring up political ties and boosting aid to African countries, working with them to fight the impact of the global economic crisis and less on securing energy supplies.
China is often criticized for its alleged drive to secure natural resources from African states, including from regimes spurned by the West like Sudan, and its "no-strings-attached" attitude towards aid.
At a summit in Beijing in 2006 China pledged to double aid to Africa in three years. Ahead of this visit Beijing said that it is ready to work more closely with African countries in the light of the global economic crisis which is expected to affect the continent by a drop in foreign investments, development aid and remittances from workers abroad.
"China ... stands ready to enhance cooperation and coordinate actions with developing countries and the international community to overcome difficulties," Chinese assistant foreign minister Zhai Jun said earlier this month.
Earlier on Thursday China's state-owned aluminium firm Chinalco announced a 19.5 billion dollar investment in troubled mining giant Rio Tinto, Beijing's biggest investment ever in a foreign company.
Rio Tinto has significant mining interests in South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe, as well as huge projects in Guinea and Madagascar.
In the past few years China has ramped up its cooperation and aid efforts in Mali and Senegal spending on large infrastructure projects, health care and education.
On Friday Hu is set to lay the first stone of a new bridge in Bamako and open a malaria centre. Both projects were made possible by Chinese aid.
The Malian presidency says on its website that trade between China and Mali remains modest but is rapidly growing.
From January to October 2008 trade was up 58 percent to 202 million dollars compared to the same period in 2007. Of that figure 140 million dollars was Chinese exports to Mali, mainly electrical appliances, green tea and textiles and 62 million dollars is Chinese imports from Mali, overwhelmingly cotton.
After his 24-hour visit, Hu will leave Friday mid-day for neighbouring Senegal. Dakar and Beijing re-established diplomatic ties in 2005 after a 10-year hiatus over Senegal's prior recognition of Taiwan.
For this trip China was quick to point out that Senegal lacked vast natural resources for China to tap into but Senegal also has iron and gold deposits and some oil reserves.
Friday's visit will focus on signing bilateral cooperation agreements. On Saturday Hu will visit the building site of Senegal's new national theatre built with Chinese aid.
The Senegalese branch of human rights watchdog Amnesty International on Thursday called on president Abdoulaye Wade to put human rights as high up on the agenda for his meeting with Hu as he would the financial agreements and infrastructure projects.
Source: AFP Global Edition