Its hunt for resources to fuel its growth is an obvious motive, but how does it succeed where others fail?

China packages its government programmes in ways that the US cannot, says CFR’s Princeton Lyman, a former US ambassador to Nigeria and South Africa. “We can’t assist an oil company in making a bid by saying if they win we’ll build a road.”

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The ideology of Sino-African relations, crafted by premier Zhou Enlai at the Bandung conference in 1955, sets “equality and mutual benefits” as the foundation. A self-declared third world country, China promotes itself as an alternative model of development.

Western donors and investors use financing as a levy to enhance Africa’s standards in rule of law and corporate governance; China offers condition-free loans, which do little to encourage democracy and human rights, but distance it from the patronising donor-recipient relationship.

However, complaints from Africans could undermine this blossoming partnership: Chinese companies rely on Chinese labour and machinery, offer poor records on safety and wages, and fail to assure sustainability through transfer of skills and technology. “It’s up to Africa and China to discuss and define the nature of their relationship,” says South Africa’s president Thabo Mbeki.

Do trade and investment tools promote a better world? Are Western practices more efficient in terms of development? Is China promoting equality or just another form of colonialism? These are questions worth debating. Nevertheless, as the Chinese say: “It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white as long as it catches mice.”

Sébastien Delasnerie, a former journalist and director at the Invest in France agency, advises governments on branding and image in international markets. E-mail: SDELASNERIE@voila.fr