China in Africa: Five Things President Xi is Looking For

1203_Xi Jinping Jacob Zuma
Chinese President Xi Jinping walks with South African President Jacob Zuma upon his arrival at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, December 2. China is looking to strengthen its ties with African trade partners at a two-day summit starting on December 4 in Johannesburg. Sydney Seshibedi/Reuters

Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in South Africa on Wednesday ahead of a regional summit at which lucrative trade deals and eye-catching meetings will be the order of the day.

The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) meets every three years since its inaugural meeting in Beijing in 2000.

China is the top trade partner for Africa with some $222 billion of goods and services changing hands between Chinese and African traders in 2014, the Wall Street Journal reported. African countries have also benefited hugely from Chinese foreign aid in recent decades. Though China is secretive about its foreign aid activities, it reportedly funds more than 2,500 development projects across 51 African states, worth a combined total of approximately $94 billion.

The relationship, however, is not one-way. During the two-day summit, President Xi will be looking to garner political support for Chinese policies, bolster relations with mineral-rich states and seek assurances over the threat posed by global militant groups.

Here are five issues the Chinese leader will seek to address during the sixth forum meeting.

1. Using South Africa to access the continent

The FOCAC summit takes place in Johannesburg, South Africa, the first time the event has taken place in sub-Saharan Africa. Xi will visit South African President Jacob Zuma in Pretoria for talks ahead of the summit, with South African Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene telling Reuters he was "hopeful that a number of deals" would be signed to boost trade between the two countries.

China is already South Africa's top import and export partner, accounting for $10.5 billion in exports and $16.4 billion in imports.

China views South Africa as a valuable "gateway to the continent," according to Stephen Chan, professor of international politics at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). "It's got good communications and transport networks that reach beyond South Africa itself," Chan says.

As well as giving access to other African countries, Chan says natural resources such as platinum, which he describes as being "on tap" in South Africa, are a lucrative draw for Chinese investment.

2. Building relations with Nigeria

Nigeria overtook South Africa as the continent's biggest economy in 2013, Reuters reported, and building ties with the West African powerhouse—also Africa's top oil producer, pumping out more than $500 billion worth of oil in 2013—is likely to be a high priority for Xi.

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari will meet with Xi at the summit and discuss reviving Chinese-financed rail projects worth more than $20 billion, as well as construction of a major power station, according to tweets sent from the president's Twitter account.

Pres @MBuhari will later this week discuss w/ Chinese President Xi Jinping about reviving stalled China-financed railway & power projects

— Presidency Nigeria (@NGRPresident) December 2, 2015

Bilateral trade between Nigeria and China has grown almost sevenfold since 2009, rising to $23.5 billion by June, and China was Nigeria's top trade partner during the second quarter of 2015. According to Chan, however, the Chinese remain cautious about deeper ties with the relatively-young Buhari regime.

"What you've got is a very strong Chinese awareness that President Buhari is new in the job," Chan says. "He's set about a very ambitious program of transformation of public administration...and no one knows whether he's going to be successful or not."

3. Garnering political support

China's long history of investment and support for African countries has created a positive image of the People's Republic in Africa. Continuing its heavy investment and support for developing African economies is an effective way of keeping them on side in other arenas, according to Deborah Brautigam, director of the China-Africa Research Initiative at John Hopkins University.

"It's important politically because each of those 54 [African] countries has a vote at the United Nations, they are all diplomatic partners and they might be useful in one way or another," Brautigam says.

4. Tackling regional and international militancy

Africa has been beset by violence from militant groups based on a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, including the Nigerian group Boko Haram and Al-Shabab, which is based in Somalia and also active in Kenya. However, according to Brautigam, the Chinese have their own problem with militancy in the restive Xinjiang region in the far west of the country.

Xinjiang has a significant population of Uighurs—an ethnic group that are largely Muslim—who have protested in recent years at perceived discrimination from Beijing. Beijing has described violence in the region as being the work of "terrorists," with government officials claiming that some Uighurs have gone to fight with radical groups in the Middle East.

According to Brautigam, China is keen to link up African and Western concerns about groups such as Boko Haram and the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) with their own troubles in Xinjiang. "They also don't want Al-Qaeda or ISIS or Boko Haram-type terrorism to reach China," she says. "Right now they really haven't, but that will be on their mind."

China has also deployed hundreds of troops to South Sudan over the course of 2015, emphasizing its commitment to maintaining African stability.

5. Handshakes and photo opportunities

The FOCAC summit is a largely ceremonial event, bringing together many stakeholders in the Sino-African relationship, according to Brautigam. The meeting could be attended by some 50 African leaders or diplomats. According to Brautigam, only four African countries—Swaziland, Burkina Faso, Gambia and Sao Tome and Principe—have no diplomatic ties with China.

As such, the summit functions as a glamorous occasion for China to reinforce its standing on the world stage by announcing things such as student fellowships and special economic zones. "This is a time for photo ops, for handshakes and for making the big announcements," Brautigam says.