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What does China want for its $20 billion to Africa?

China signaled its intention to expand ties with Africa today at the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation by promising $20 billion in loans to African countries over the next three years. The pledge, which is double what China offered at the Forum's 2009 meeting in Egypt, includes outlays for training, scholarships, and medical care in Africa, the Los Angeles Times reports.

In recent years, China has left Western competitors behind in its drive to curry favor with African leaders, providing loans and building roads, railways and infrastructure with a no-questions-asked approach.

China's seeming indifference to abuses of human rights has attracted criticism from Western competitors and some rights activists. Many African leaders, however, don't express such concerns.

But China's focus on infrastructure -- designed to facilitate the extraction of oil and other natural resources -- has begun to rally a growing chorus of detractors, and not just in the West. At the Forum today, South African President Jacob Zuma called Africa's trade relationship with China "unsustainable," arguing that "Africa's past economic experience with Europe dictates a need to be cautious when entering into partnerships with other economies."

Africa's approach to Chinese investment in recent decades can hardly be described as cautious, however. Chinese-African trade has tripled in the last three years, totaling $166 billion in 2011. China is now Africa's biggest trading partner, having surpassed the United States in 2009, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. (Interestingly, other emerging market countries have also deepened their economic ties with Africa, with India, Korea, Brazil, and Turkey together accounting for nearly 35 percent of the continent's trade.)

Part of China's appeal seems to stem from its ability to marry authoritarian governance with high levels of economic growth. As the Wall Street Journal put it, "leaders from South Africa to Ethiopia have been touting [China's] model for development -- one that stresses state-led growth, validates tight-fisted political control and offers a powerful counterpoint to the free-market democracy mantra promoted by the U.S."

It's no surprise, then, that China has found willing partners in some of Africa's least democratic states. Zimbabwe and Ethiopia have both attracted substantial Chinese aid and equity investments, for example, as have Angola, Congo, and Sudan, all of which have oil or minerals on offer.

But today's announcement was intended to show another side of China -- and to deflect criticisms about its imperial designs. In addition to increased credit, training, and scholarships, China has taken measures to rebalance trade ties with Africa, including the elimination of tariffs on certain African products. Could this be an indication the China is becoming a more responsible player in the international community?

As today's other major news item on China -- its third consecutive veto of sanctions against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at the United Nations -- indicates, there doesn't seem to be much danger of that. But China does seem to act responsibly so long as it makes financial sense. And so it was when China voted for UN Security Council Resolution 2046, which threatened sanctions against Sudan, long a client state of Beijing, unless it deescalated its conflict with the South. Oddly enough, with its oil supplies hanging in the balance, China might actually be the best hope for peace in this region.

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Indigenous community drives out Colombian military with sticks

On Tuesday, indigenous residents of El Berlin, a small rural town in southwestern Colombia, forced the Colombian military off its mountaintop base. Members of the Nasa indigenous community surrounded several soldiers, picked them up, and dragged them away from their posts. The military eventually retook the facility using tear gas to disperse the protesters.  

Tuesdays' confrontation started after government forces ignored an ultimatum from indigenous authorities demanding an end to what they saw as government occupation of tribal lands, according to La Semana.  Over 1000 members of the indigenous community had been staging a sit-in at the base for nearly a week in preparation for the showdown with the government forces. The soldiers were at the outpost protecting an antenna but the community claims that the military outpost was built on a sacred mountain.

The clashes have caused at least 30 injuries and one death, and confusion remains about how events are unfolding. The scene is further complicated by the suspected presence of FARC soldiers on the outskirts of the town who fired shots in the air amidst the clashes. 

President Juan Manuel Santos has demanded an end to the violence, asserting "we will not tolerate attacks against those who defend us." Last week, Santos had promised,  "we will not cede a single centimeter of land of El Cauca or of the nation's territory."

The ongoing crisis has seized national attention and touched off a flurry of debate in Colombia about indigenous rights, the military's human rights record and the stability of the state.  Some discussion boards are suggesting that the images from this debacle could cost Santos his reelection. Others are lauding the soldiers' restraint in not firing on the crowd during the kerfuffle, and images of a soldier crying after being carried down the mountain by protestors has elicited sympathy for the military.

Government supporters have revived the standard charge that the indigenous groups must be tied to the FARC.  Santos himself claimed that there were "links" between the indigenous tribe and guerrilla groups.  Other critics claim the indigenous tribes are seeking to return to highly profitable coca cultivation that the military is trying to eradicate.

El Berlin is located in southwest Colombia in El Cauca department (state), which was once host  to the late FARC commander, Alfonso Cano, who was killed by government forces in 2011.  Indigenous communities in Colombia have suffered the most during the protracted armed conflict of the past six decades.  Their national representation has strengthened in recent years and has increased their appeals for various levels of autonomy from the government.

Indigenous leaders have called for both the military and the illegal armed groups to quit the area and let the local communities live in peace after six decades of suffering FARC, paramilitary and military clashes that left hundreds dead and thousands displaced.

Santos says that they will negotiate with the Nasa community only if they end the attacks on the soldiers. Several national leaders, including former president Ernesto Samper, suggested solutions to the crisis ranging from the creation of a humanitarian zone to international intervention.

Tension remains high after protestors captured 30 military guards, since released, and four FARC combatants. As of Thursday morning, the military retained control of the mountaintop base. The local civilian police force is charged with responding to protestors.

LUIS ROBAYO/AFP/GettyImages