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Africans are asking searching questions about China. Is it really a friend and ally or just another colonial oppressor? The business flowing between China and the African continent now exceeds $200-billion (U.S.) a year and is growing fast. But some African politicians and business leaders wonder whether trade with China in the 21st century is all that different from the extraction of African minerals and metals and the reverse flow of cheap manufactured goods that characterized European trade in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Instead of caricaturing the Chinese as goodies or baddies, however, Africans who play host to Chinese investors should begin to realize that China is neither friend nor foe but just a very big customer and ambitious supplier.

China's ravenous appetite for energy and metals has made it an important customer for several African states, notably Angola, where it is the biggest buyer of crude oil. China's state oil enterprise is a major operator in Sudan, taking advantage of America's ban, and Chinese mining companies are digging copper out of Zambia. In turn, the buoyant commodity trade has stimulated African economies which are sucking in goods, creating a market for machinery, textiles and household products that China is delighted to satisfy.

China's share of Africa's trade has doubled to 20 per cent since 2008, according to South Africa's Standard Bank, which reckons that the continent is China's fastest growing export destination, increasing at a rate of 15 per cent a year.

It should be no surprise that Chinese exporters are targeting emerging markets, such as Africa, given the stagnation in Europe. Incoming President Xi Jinping's first overseas excursion will take him to South Africa, Tanzania and Republic of Congo, and the Chinese media boasts that the country will eclipse both the EU and U.S. as Africa's biggest trading partner within a few years.

Nevertheless, some Africans wonder what long-term benefit this frenetic Chinese activity is having on their own economies. There are complaints about the failure of Chinese investors to use local suppliers and accusations that workers in Chinese-operated mines are exploited, but the big question is about the net gain to Africa's balance sheet. In July last year, South African President Jacob Zuma described the trade relationship between Africa and China as "unsustainable."

In an article written for today's Financial Times, Lamido Sanusi, the governor of Nigeria's central bank, describes the relationship with China as essentially "the essence of colonialism" with China digging out raw materials and sending back manufactured goods. He urges Africans to wake up from their romance with China, to stop seeing the People's Republic as a partner and saviour. Instead, he says, China should be seen as a competitor.

In other words, stop selling crude oil and start making refined oil products and chemicals. Instead of exporting gas, turn it into fertilizer and add value to Africa's agricultural export potential. His complaint is not new and he blames Africa's corruption and toleration of incompetence for the continent's perpetual weakness and dependence.

Yet, his insight is timely because China's aggressive and mercantilist pursuit of the African market also exposes China's weakness and Africa's opportunity. With manufacturers in the U.S. and Europe beginning to "onshore" production that was previously transplanted to Guangdong, Africa has a huge potential labour cost advantage over the inflating costs in China.

Eager to replace the dwindling export opportunity in Europe, China is seeking to shift its Victorian-style trade to Africa even as the model is shown to be out of date. The commodity price boom that is currently lifting Africa is about to fade and the time has come for Africa to begin to make things.

Carl Mortished is a contributor to ROB Insight, the business commentary service available to Globe Unlimited subscribers. Click here for more of his Insights.