BEIJING, Feb 10 (Reuters) - China's quest to show it is a responsible power in grim economic times moves to Africa this week, where President Hu Jintao will seek to both reassure and temper hopes of aid and investment.
After a three-day visit to Saudi Arabia beginning on Tuesday (see story [nPEK172330]), Hu goes to Mali, Senegal, Tanzania and Mauritius -- all offering opportunities for growing China but none ranked among Africa's economic and resource heavyweights.
Trade between China and Africa rose to $107 billion last year, and Hu's choice of smaller destinations appears designed to show China's interest reaches beyond oil and mines, said Zha Daojiong, an expert on energy diplomacy at Peking University. (See factbox on Sino-African ties [nPEK226907].)
"The itinerary appears intended to show that we treat all the African countries, big and small, equally," said Zha. "There's also the implicit message that China's relationship with Africa isn't solely defined by resource and energy investments."
Hu and his officials are nonetheless sure to announce investment and aid deals, in a show of support for African economies shaken by the global slowdown.
Chinese leaders have said their economy will continue to grow this year, giving some hope that China will help pull other markets out of the slump. That message was reinforced by Premier Wen Jiabao during a recent high-profile European trip.
The four African countries hosting Hu are not resource-rich and "would be eager for Chinese infrastructure investment", said Jeffrey Herbst, an Africa scholar at Miami University in Ohio.
Adding lasting substance will be more difficult since the global downturn is also straining Beijing's commitment in Africa.
Hu -- who has made building ties with Africa a feature of his foreign policy -- must convince his own officials and firms that staying in Africa makes sense despite woes at home. He must also temper African expectations of unfettered investment and aid.
"There are anxieties in Africa. People who work in the mining sector have been quick to point out that the Chinese companies were also withdrawing and suspending production," said Christopher Alden, an expert on Sino-African relations at the London School of Economics.
The six-day Africa sojourn may also allow Hu, rarely without a dark suit and noncommittal gaze, to let down his hair a little.
Footage from his visit there last year showed him unusually cheery, smiling and buoyant among welcoming locals.
Hu's commitment to Africa appears to reflect his belief that the continent offers a friendly stage to show the wider world that China's growth and international policies are a global good.
In 2006, Hu promised a summit with African leaders of a leap in investment, trade and aid. At the G20 summit of big developed and developing economies last November, he raised Africa's needs during the global economic turmoil.
Trade between China and African countries has surged by an average 30 percent for much of the past decade, driven by China's appetite for oil and minerals, and its sales of clothes, cars, telecommunications and other goods to African markets.
But nearly all of Africa's exports to China come from a handful of countries rich in oil or minerals. And now that resource-driven motor for closer ties has collided with the global economic downturn.
Once avid Chinese investors have pulled out of mines in Africa, Herbst and another expert, Greg Mills, wrote in a recent commentary.
"The (commodity) price decline, and the subsequent Chinese response, will probably cause African leaders to recalibrate their perspective on what they can expect from Beijing in the years to come," they wrote.
One Chinese expert on relations said the government's aid promises have also brought mismatched expectations.
"There are agencies within the government feeling a bit burdened by African demands for China to live up to its promises," said the expert, who demanded anonymity for discussing internal matters.
Beijing is coy about disclosing aid numbers. One scholar, Carlos Oya of the London School of Economics, has estimated China's aid to Africa at $500 million to $800 million a year.
The United States' gave Sub-Saharan Africa $5.6 billion in aid in 2006, and the European Union and its member states gave 26.4 billion euros ($34 billion) in aid to Africa that year.
Additional reporting by Lucy Hornby, Editing by Dean Yates