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China sweeps the board in Africa

  |   May 26, 2010 at 1:29 PM
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa, May 26 (UPI) -- Consider this: China has agreed to spend $19 billion to build oil refineries and petroleum industry infrastructure in Nigeria.

That would bolster Beijing's efforts to acquire 6 billion barrels of the African producer's reserves as part of its global drive to secure energy supplies for decades to come.

China has signed a deal to invest $877 million in South Africa's platinum industry, Beijing's second largest investment in Africa outside the energy sector.

China announced that it plans to expand its multimillion-dollar energy and infrastructure projects in the central African state of Niger, despite a February coup that toppled President Mamadou Tandja.

The unfortunate Tandja, the Financial Times wryly observed, "became the first African leader whose downfall could be traced to his embrace of Chinese suitors."

By pressing ahead and doing business with the military men who toppled Tandja, China "secured access to not only another source of African oil but also to what is perhaps the single commodity considered more sensitive than crude: uranium," the FT said.

Across Africa, the Chinese are outdoing themselves in scooping up deals that secure the lion's share of the continent's immense mineral treasure house, eclipsing their main competitors, the United States, India and Europe, while leaving Japan trailing far behind.

By cutting a deal on uranium with Niger's military junta, Beijing shattered the long-established primacy of Areva, France's state-controlled nuclear group.

France, the former colonial power in Niger, has assiduously maintained its links with its onetime colonies in Africa to ensure access to their strategic mineral riches.

Chinese largess, in the shape of massive investment in infrastructure projects like an $800 million oil refinery and a $700 million hydroelectric complex, severed France's exclusive access to Niger's oil and uranium.

Tandja had been seeking to do just that since 2004, even accusing Areva of bankrolling Tuareg rebels in the Sahara. Chinese bonuses to Niger, the world's sixth largest uranium producer, paid for weapons to combat the insurgency.

Tandja got too greedy and sought to make himself president for life until disgruntled military officers booted him out Feb. 18 -- and made it clear they wanted to continue dealing with Beijing.

Still, the events in Niger, where the Sino-U company is working on China's largest uranium mine, could be something of a testbed for Beijing's strategic sweep.

The junta hasn't reduced official links to China, although Chinese executives reportedly no longer have the untrammeled access to the leadership they had while Tandja ruled.

The state-run China National Petroleum Corp. is spending $5 billion developing the Agadem oil block, which Western energy giants like Exxon Mobil of the United States and Total of France had earlier declined to get their hands dirty on.

Chinese Ambassador to Niger Xia Huang said earlier this month that a 1,200-mile oil export pipeline to Benin on Africa's west coast was under consideration.

The billions of dollars that China has forked out for major infrastructure projects, like oil refineries and pipelines, airports, highways, hospitals and schools, in Africa has invariably won them the contracts for energy and raw materials that Beijing covets.

That is largely due to the fact that Beijing is rolling in hard cash when its competitors are struggling to recover from the global meltdown and have little to spare for such undertakings.

Beijing's move into South Africa, and particularly its plans to invest in the platinum industry, marks a new departure for the Chinese.

South Africa accounts for around 80 percent of the world's platinum production, with Russia most of the rest. China is the world's fourth largest importer.

Under the platinum deal signed a week ago, Jinchuan, a state-owned firm and one of China's largest mining concerns, acquired 51 percent of Wesizwe, a South African platinum developer, for $277 million.

The China Development Bank is expected to sink another $650 million into platinum production at Rustenburg, west of the capital Pretoria. Under a long-term agreement, Jinchuan will take all the platinum produced.

"The agreement … adds intensity to China's ambitious drive to sustain its economic boom by securing Africa's natural resources," the FT observed.

"This is a very significant strategic play because it gives China its first direct access to platinum," said Martyn Davies, chief executive officer of Frontier Advisory, a Johannesburg firm that was involved in the Wesizwe deal.

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