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A rising China counters US clout in Africa

Trade drives political role ahead of Zimbabwe's election.

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The Chinese economic juggernaut and its thirst for minerals and markets has increasingly brought it to Africa, including here to Zimbabwe. The fertile hills of this Southern African nation are rich with gold and the world's second-largest platinum reserves. In Sudan, Angola, and along the Gulf of Guinea, the Asian giant is guzzling the continent's vast oil supply.

But lately the Chinese are digging on a different front, one that could complicate the Bush administration's efforts to promote democracy here: African politics.

Last year, China stymied US efforts to levy sanctions on Sudan, which supplies nearly 5 percent of China's oil and where the US says genocide has occurred in its Darfur region. And as Zimbabwe becomes more isolated from the West, China has sent crates of T-shirts for ruling-party supporters who will vote in Thursday's parliamentary elections.

In addition, China or its businesses have reportedly:

• provided a radio-jamming device for a military base outside the capital, preventing independent stations from balancing state-controlled media during the election campaign;

• begun to deliver 12 fighter jets and 100 trucks to Zimbabwe's Army amid a Western arms embargo; and

• designed President Robert Mugabe's new 25-bedroom mansion, complete with helipad. The cobalt-blue tiles for its swooping roof, which echoes Beijing's Forbidden City, were a Chinese gift.

China is increasingly making its presence felt on the continent - from building roads in Kenya and Rwanda to increasing trade with Uganda and South Africa. But critics say its involvement in politics could help prop up questionable regimes, like Mr. Mugabe's increasingly autocratic 25-year reign.

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