SHARM EL-SHEIK, Egypt (AP) -- China's premier on Sunday pledged $10 billion in new low interest loans to African nations over three years, offering the beleaguered continent sorely needed cash while dismissing criticism that Beijing's motives in Africa are far from altruistic.
Wen Jiabao's promise at the start of a two-day China-Africa summit was warmly received by African leaders and officials, most of whose nations confront a miasma of despair further accentuated by a global financial crisis that is only now showing signs of abating.
"The Chinese people cherish sincere friendship toward the African people, and China's support to Africa's development is concrete and real," Wen said at a forum that attracted leaders such as Sudan's Omar al-Bashir - who faces an international arrest warrant - and Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe. Both are heads of state out-of-favor with the West.
Wen said China wants to help Africa build its financing capacity and would provide $10 billion in concessional loans - ones with generous terms.
As part of an eight-point plan, he said China would also forgive government debts of the poorest African nations that have relations with Beijing and would build 100 new clean energy projects for the continent. It would also gradually institute a zero-tariff policy on 95 percent of goods from some of the poorest countries. All this would take place over three years.
The latest offer marks a doubling of the $5 billion loan pledge China made in 2006 to African nations - a promise that Beijing and most at the summit said China has upheld. Over the past eight years, trade between China and Africa has surged tenfold to almost $107 billion by the end of 2008, and Wen said despite the financial crisis, Chinese investments in Africa were up 77 percent in the first three quarters of 2009.
But China's inroads into Africa have drawn accusations by some in the West that the Asian powerhouse has ignored Africa's needs and the dismal rights records of some nations while looking only to sap the continent of the resources it needs to fuel its bustling economy. Critics contend that its aid is predicated on these countries renouncing ties with Taiwan - a belief Wen appeared to validate by stipulating that assistance was pegged to having diplomatic relations with China.
But more troubling for some has been Beijing's willingness to pour money into some countries irrespective of their internal politics.
China has, for example, been a key force in developing Sudan's vital oil sector even as the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum is accused of atrocities in the Darfur region. More recently, a $7 billion mining deal was signed between a little-known Chinese company and Guinea's government - an agreement that came weeks after soldiers there opened fire on demonstrators and raped women in the streets.
The Chinese premier said he took issue with claims that "China has come to Africa to plunder its resources and practice neocolonialism."
"This allegation, in my view, is totally untenable," Wen told reporters. "Any person who is familiar with China-Africa interaction knows that relations between the two sides did not begin yesterday."
China has been active in Africa for decades, working on infrastructure projects and supporting African nations in their fight against colonial powers in the early 1950s and 60s. He said that at that time, China did not take a "single drop of oil or a single ton of minerals."
Wen said China's imports of African mineral resources and energy account for only 13 percent of the continent's total exports and its investments in Africa's oil and gas sector were only one-sixteenth of the total investments in the continent.
"So, why do some people only criticize China?" Wen asked.
Earlier, the Chinese premier invited others in the international community to step up and do their part to support Africa. The comments appeared to be a subtle nudge at Western nations with a checkered colonial past on the continent.
Zimbabwe's Mugabe - blamed by many in the West for driving his country's economy into the ground - praised China's growth as a model.
"Over the past 60 years, China has achieved phenomenal economic growth and development, purely from its own efforts without having to resort to the colonization and economic plunder of other nations," Mugabe said. "Its economic miracle is indeed a source of pride and inspiration to all of us."
Other leaders, like Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, expressed frustration with fallout from the global economic crisis that she said has "eroded benefits accumulated over years of reform."
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the summit's host, said participants should seize the opportunity to press developed nations, "given their responsibility in the financial and economic crisis," to live up to their obligations in helping developing nations cope with the fallout.