1 February 2007

Liberia: World's Most Popular President Comes to Monrovia

Liberia's President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf paid a state visit between October 28 and November 6, 2006, her first-ever and last state visit since assuming power more than a year ago.

The Liberian leader participated in the Forum On China-Africa Cooperation in the Chinese capital, Beijing after which the 3-Year Beijing Action Plan for economic and cultural cooperation was drawn up.

During the visit, also, the Liberian leader extended an invitation to the Chinese President to visit Liberia in order to have a first-hand appreciation of the challenges facing Liberia following 14 years of devastating warfare.

Now President Hu Jintao has seen the logic of President Sirleaf's invitation and is reciprocating in grand style.

The Analyst's Staff Writer has been searching the files for what this visit may turn up for Sino-Liberia relations that has made unbelievable strides in just under three years.

President Hu Jintao of the People's Republic of China (PRC) touches down today at the Roberts International Airport to begin a one-day state visit, the first ever by a Chinese leader, to Liberia.

The Chinese leader, according to information available to The Analyst, is accompanied by Commerce Minister Bo Xilai, Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing, and other senior policy makers.

President Jintao's Liberia visit is the second leg of his 8-nation African visit and many Liberians, judging the visit from hindsight related to the memoranda signed during President's last October state visit, say it is likely to bring good tidings to war-devastated and yet UN sanction- and debt-haunted Liberia.

Reports however say the visit is aimed to raise China's bilateral friendship and cooperation ties with Liberia to a new, undisclosed level.

The President of a country with 1.3 billion citizens and the fastest growth rate in the world, Hu Jintao, flies to Liberia from the Central African state of Cameroon.

According to Interfax China news, President Hu left Beijing January 30 to begin his 8-nation tour of Africa, with the continent's energy resources believed to be high on the list of priorities.

The state media said that the visit is part of China's latest efforts to shower the continent with business and aid, but Africa's raw materials are widely regarded as the main prize.

Analysts said although China has been eying the continent's rich energy resources to fuel its booming economy, the country is also aiming to strengthen its political influence, seeking African support for its rise to superpower status.

What role Liberia, which has no energy deposit, plays in this regards to warrant President Hu's attention in his first visit to Africa after FOCAC, is not clear.

But many Liberians say the visit cannot be anything more than humanitarian-driven with an unqualified desire to help a country in desperate need of reconstruction funds.

They said the visit coming two weeks short of the donor conference on Liberia has a lot in store for Liberia from China, a permanent of the United Nations.

Pres. Jintao's 12-day journey will take him to Cameroon, Mozambique, Namibia, the Seychelles, South Africa, Zambia, and Sudan, where he has been pressured by the U.N. to help resolve the crisis in the Darfur Region, using China's leverage as a big oil buyer.

"This tour will be another major diplomatic move by China towards African nations following the Beijing Summit held last November," Foreign Affairs spokesman Liu Jianchao told a regular press conference prior to Hu's visit.

The trip will address key themes such as boosting business ties and giving aid through debt relief and poverty alleviation, Liu said.

Observers say after benefiting from China's debt relief in millions of dollars last year in addition to other bilateral and technical assistance covering the renovation of major state institutions in Liberia, the repair of numerous roads across the country, and the giving of agriculture assistance, it is not clear whether the Asian nation will make further relief commitment to Liberia.

They though believe the visit will be of little substance to the average Liberian if consideration for Liberia's reconstruction agenda is not highlighted and discussed.

"Certainly, Africa serves as a good back-up for China's dwindling oil reserves, but it means more than just an oil and gas field," an energy expert with Shanghai Institute for International Studies told Interfax.

"Africa's rich energy resources have raised its importance in world affairs, and China also needs its support as it further extends its influence overseas," the expert said.

Trade between China and Africa reached $55.5 billion last year, up 40 percent from the previous year, while accumulated direct Chinese investment in the continent reached $6.6 billion, according to a report by the official Xinhua news agency.

During his trip ending February 10, President Hu is expected to meet leaders of all the nations, exchange views with them on bilateral relationships and the issues of common concern, said Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Liu Jianchao.

"This tour will be another major diplomatic move by China towards the African nations since the Beijing Summit last November," Liu added. He said Hu's visit was aimed at deepening traditional friendships and realizing the agreements reached during the Beijing Summit.

Previous visits to Africa by Hu and other Chinese officials have yielded debt cancellations, pledges to build hospitals and stadiums, and business deals over supplies of oil and raw materials to fuel China's fast-growing economy.

For Liberia, it will mean expansion in technical cooperation between the two countries in the areas of health, education, culture, and agriculture, insiders said.

At a special China-Africa summit in Beijing in November, Hu offered $5 billion in loans and credit to Africa and pledged to double aid, keen to demonstrate that China's ties with Africa went beyond thirst for its reserves of oil and raw materials.

Trade between China and Africa jumped 40 percent to $55.5 billion in 2006, with the balance of trade $2.1 billion in Africa's favor, according to Chinese Trade Ministry data published by the Chinese news agency Xinhua this week.

Some Western leaders and analysts criticize China for offering trade, aid and investment with no strings attached, saying it undermines efforts by some Western donors to promote democracy and human rights through conditional aid.

But many African leaders have only responded with a retort, "Let them do more than China if they care."

Meanwhile an Executive Mansion press release issued late yesterday said President Hu will be met on arrival at the RIA by Pres. Johnson-Sirleaf at the head of a high-power Liberian government delegation.

"President Hu Jintao and entourage will proceed with host President Sirleaf to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs where the two leaders are expected to hold talks on Liberia-China relations," the release said.

It said while at the Foreign Ministry, the key of the City of Monrovia will be presented to President Hu by Monrovia City Mayor Ophelia Hoff-Saytumah.

During the visit, the two leaders are expected to sign a number of agreements for the implementation of memoranda of understanding reached in the areas of economic, trade, cultural, education, public health development, and close international cooperation.

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