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China's latest trade visit to Africa reveals a different approach to business

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Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters

(Read caption) Zimbabwe's Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai (R) talks to visiting Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi (L) at his Munhumutapa offices in Harare on Feb. 11. Zimbabwe is an important ally to China and Beijing will seek to further strengthen ties, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang said of a country isolated by the West under President Robert Mugabe's rule.

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China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi visited Chad yesterday, the last stop on a trip that included Zimbabwe, Guinea, Gabon, and Togo. Yang has made three prior journeys to Africa, and this trip reflects China’s continued engagement across the continent. Once again, economic themes dominated the agenda, and Yang ‘s policy statements affirmed China’s willingness to work with African leaders that the West finds controversial and its willingness to do business amidst political turmoil.

In Zimbabwe, Yang met with President Robert Mugabe. Yang “signed an agreement to give Zimbabwe’s government a 50 million yuan ($7.6 million) grant and called for sanctions against the southern African country to be lifted.”

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In Guinea, Yang spoke with President Alpha Conde and announced “two cooperation agreements worth 170 million yuan ($26 million).”

In Gabon, Yang sat down with President Ali Bongo Ondimba “and they pledged closer cooperation in trade, economy and infrastructure.”

In Togo, “Yang and his Togolese counterpart, Elliott Ohin, signed a deal for a six million euro grant in Kara, the ruling party’s home base and native region of longtime leader General Gnassingbe Eyadema, whose son is now president state media said.”

And finally, in Chad, economic cooperation also took center stage.

On each stop, then, Yang announced new agreements and urged further cooperation. Many of these countries have already seen huge increases in their trade with China in recent years.

The differences between Chinese and American styles in Africa remain striking. A high-ranking American diplomat who visited countries like Zimbabwe and Gabon, where political turmoil has profoundly shaken the legitimacy of rulers, would have almost certainly concentrated on political themes, urging reform and greater democratization. China’s strategy continues to center on identifying shared interests (unequally shared, some would argue) and building ever-closer relationships with leaders, no matter how controversial those leaders are, based on those ties.

Alex Thurston is a PhD student studying Islam in Africa at Northwestern University and blogs at Sahel Blog.