DAKAR (Reuters) - China is winning African hearts and minds by offering the world's poorest continent everything from cheap flip-flops to new sports stadiums, but the West is wary of the Asian giant's methods and motives.
From a 20,000-seater soccer stadium in coup-prone Central African Republic to a huge parliament building in war-hit Ivory Coast, China is opening diplomatic doors with attention-grabbing gifts for the state and cheap goods for the people.
Even in the fabled Saharan trading towns of Agadez and Timbuktu, the moped of choice for young men is a Chinese "Jin-Cheng".
"We have gained the confidence of African countries," said Tongqing Wang, political affairs advisor at the new Chinese embassy in Senegal's capital Dakar.
"We have the same impulses. We understand African countries well; what they want, what they do," he said as workmen wrestled a telecoms mast onto the roof of his new office.
Senegal is the latest African country to be wooed by China, resuming diplomatic ties in October after a 10-year break. In doing so it ditched links with Taiwan and recognised Beijing's claim to sovereignty over the island.
The move left Taiwan -- which immediately accused China of luring Senegal with "threats and inducements" -- with only 25 allies, many of them small Caribbean and Pacific Island nations.
"States have no friends, they have only interests," Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade wrote in a blunt letter to Taiwan's Chen Shui-bian, informing him of the decision.
With China seeking a home for its current cash surplus and Senegal looking for cheap ways to develop its infrastructure, there were interests on both sides: Sino-Senegalese trade hit $105 million in the first three quarters of 2005, up by more than a third on the previous year.
HUMAN RIGHTS, CORRUPTION
But the rewards for China's diplomatic push go beyond trade.
Chinese oil executives may be winning contracts to hunt for new reserves, vital to sustain the world's fastest growing economy, but building diplomatic clout is equally important.
Gaining support on the world stage from one of the few corners of the globe where the influence of the United States and of former European colonial powers is on the wane is seen as a goal worth pursuing by China.
"Beijing seems to be very much aware of the difficulties which a late-industrialising nation faces in competing with established players for influences in the world," said Xuewu Gu, chair of East Asian Politics at Bochum University in Germany.
"They believe that China would only have the chance to establish itself quickly in areas where the positions of other powers were yet weak," he wrote in a study published earlier this year.
That worries Western politicians who fear China's cosiness with corrupt rulers undermines international efforts to promote good governance: when the West threatens sanctions by curbing investment, China is all too ready to plug the gap.
"China's propping up of corrupt regimes hinders the United States' ability to stop rogue states and to help create stable, prosperous and open societies," said Carolyn Bartholomew of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.
"China is willing to provide economic, military and diplomatic assistance to undemocratic African regimes in direct opposition to political forces that spent years attempting to encourage change in these regimes," she told Congress in July.
She cited an order placed by the government of Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe -- shunned as a pariah by much of the West -- for 12 fighter jets from China in late 2004 at a time when the country faced economic collapse.
BROTHERS IN ARMS
Chinese diplomats and businessmen are quick to point out that their nation's political interest in Africa is nothing new.
Beijing supported African revolutionary movements struggling for independence in the 1960s and 70s, some of whose leaders have since come to power and are ready to repay the favour.
The entry of the People's Republic of China into the United Nations in 1971 was supported by many Third World nations who hoped it would play an active role in the Non-Aligned Movement.
"China never forgets that," said Wang in Dakar.
"The friendship between China and Africa goes back a long way," he said, adding the heads of state from every African country which recognises China -- all but six of them -- would be invited to a summit in Beijing next year.
Chinese traders living in Africa pride themselves on having a closer relationship with the man in the street than their Western counterparts, a friendship they see as born of a common struggle to earn a decent living in a developing nation.
"The biggest challenge for Beijing has been to open the door of Africa without repeating the mistakes made by the 'American imperialists' and 'European colonialists'," Bochum's Gu wrote.
"Arrogance and ... patronising feelings are at the top of the list of warnings for government officials and entrepreneurs involved with sub-Saharan Africa."
It appears to have paid off.
Gaudily coloured Chinese flip-flops are ubiquitous in West Africa, adorning the feet of everyone from Senegal's taxi drivers to Liberia's rebel fighters, and outselling more expensive African leather sandals in the region's markets.
"The Chinese and their goods are welcome in Africa," said Edvige Ettien, shopping in a Chinese grocery store in Abidjan. "But we still have some problems reading the labels."
(Additional reporting by Peter Murphy in Abidjan)
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