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A century ago, it was the explorers and infantrymen of Europe's great powers slugging it out for slices of Africa. Now, it is the agents of Chinese and Brazilian capital, but the competition is just as fierce.

Underscoring the new world order of the 21st century, Brazil's Vale , the world's biggest iron ore producer, is going head-to-head with Jinchuan Group, China's dominant nickel producer, in a fight for Metorex, a medium-sized South Africa-listed mining firm.

Although the saga still has at least a week to run, Jinchuan swung a hefty blow this week, with a $1.3-billion U.S. bid to trump a $1.1-billion offer from Vale.

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Jinchuan's juicy premium for Metorex, which operates copper and cobalt mines in Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, clearly demonstrates the lengths Chinese firms are prepared to go to secure natural resources for ravenous factories back home.

But it is also evidence of Chinese companies, in particular state-backed ones, being able to post top-dollar bids for foreign assets due to the cheap finance they can get from Beijing, rather than having to raise pricier commercial funding.

This aspect of Chinese growth in the new 'Scramble for Africa' is likely to fuel the sense of a playing field tilted unfairly towards Beijing, creating tension with other up-and-coming powers and undermining efforts to boost 'South-South' diplomacy.

"Chinese state-backed firms with access to cheap government export finance can easily trump the likes of Vale, who have to pay commercial, and thus more expensive rates, for finance," said Markus Weimer of London's Chatham House think-tank.

"State subsidies for national companies will continue to be watched with scornful eyes by Western governments, and increasingly by other emerging powers such as Brazil and India."

That Brazil is a rising player in Africa is nothing new.

During his time in office, former president Luis Inacio Lula da Silva made fostering commercial ties across the south Atlantic a major priority, visiting at least 25 African countries and doubling the number of embassies there.

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Brazil now has 31 formal African diplomatic posts, behind the United States and Russia at 46 and 45 respectively, but well ahead of 26 for Britain, which is having to close embassies to cut costs in what used to be its backyard.

But against China, it still lags a distant second.

On the embassy count, China comes in at 42 – double the number of India – and Chinese firms looking abroad can tap a wealth of funding sources, from the likes of the China Exim Bank, the Bank of China and the China Development Bank.

By contrast, besides commercial banks, Brazilian firms are largely limited to the BNDES, Brazil's national development bank – an important player but one that steers clear of more unstable markets.

When it comes to trade, China is also streets ahead, doing $107-billion of business with the continent a year – more than the United States – against India's $32-billion, Brazil's $20-billion, and a paltry $3.5-billion for Russia, the final member of the BRIC group that admitted South Africa this year.

This is not to say China has it all its own way.

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A preference for imported labour and heavy-handedness by Chinese managers has bred grass-roots discontent, not least in Zambia, where mine workers have been shot and wounded for complaining about pay and conditions.

But, given its pre-eminent commercial, diplomatic and financial position, China looks set to stay ahead in Africa.

"This Metorex deal really showcases the competition among the BRIC countries for resources and access in Africa, and the financial muscle and firepower that comes with major Chinese players," said Hannan Erdinger of Johannesburg-based consultancy Frontier Advisory.

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