By Richard Lough - PORT LOUIS, Feb 16 (Reuters)
Chinese president Hu Jintao agreed on Tuesday to lend Mauritius $260 million to expand the island nation's airport and promised to deepen trade ties and investment in Africa despite the economic downturn.
"Despite difficulties in our own economy at home, China will continue to offer assistance to Africa within the realms of our capabilities," Hu told ministers and Chinese delegates.
"We have committed to expanding trade and mutual investment with Africa on a basis of equality and mutual benefit."
Hu has already visited Mali, Senegal and Tanzania and ends his trip in Mauritius, in a tour of nations that rank outside Africa's economic and resource heavyweights.
Analysts say it is a deliberate message that Beijing, whose trade with Africa has increased tenfold this decade to $107 billion last year, wants to engage right across the continent, even with smaller nations and in sectors beyond oil and mining.
Hu also said he would push for Africa to have more say in reforming international financial markets.
The global financial crisis is buffeting Mauritius' tourism sector, a key source of foreign exchange for the Indian Ocean island's $9 billion economy and is hampering its ambitions to double visitor arrivals to 2 million by 2015.
Trade between China and Mauritius increased by 11.7 percent in 2008 from the previous year to reach $323 million, Hu said.
In addition to the airport loan, He signed deals paving the way for an interest free loan of 40 million yuan ($5.9 million) and a 30 million yuan grant. Mauritian officials declined to say what the money was for.
Mauritian Prime Minister Navinchandra Ramgoolam said the two countries had discussed possible further assistance to improve transport in and out of the island's congested capital.
GATEWAY TO AFRICA
Mauritius, an old ally of Beijing, is one of Africa's most stable and prosperous countries but is devoid of the oil and minerals China craves. Instead, the island of 1.3 million inhabitants is marketing itself as Asia's gateway into Africa.
"We are pitching Mauritius as a platform, a value added service platform between the two continents," Raju Jaddu, Chairman of the Board of Investment, told Reuters.
Analysts say Mauritius, with its established and stable financial sector, can be of strategic importance to China.
"It is the key economy in the Indian Ocean region. Traditionally, Mauritius has been under the Indian sphere of influence. Now China is looking to challenge that," said Martyn Davies, head of the Centre for Chinese Studies at South Africa's Stellenbosch University.
Hu pledged to speed up construction of the China-funded $730 million Economic and Trade Zone north of the capital. The Tianli project will be the largest injection of foreign direct investment into Mauritius, generating up to 40,000 jobs, Mauritius government officials say.
It is expected to create up to 7 billion rupees ($210 million) of exports per year, almost 10 percent of Mauritius' external sales in 2007. But critics accuse the Chinese of exploitation and mainly employing fellow countrymen.
Before Hu's visit, China had extended Mauritius more than 800 million Yuan ($117 million) in preferential loans since the island recognised Beijing in 1972.
Thirteen Chinese companies operate in Mauritius in the textile, construction and IT sectors and more than half of all foreign workers on the island are Chinese.