Analysts say soaring oil prices and China's double-digit growth have made energy supply an economic and a national security priority.

 

After visiting the United States and Saudi Arabia last week, Hu Jintao, the president, will spend the next five days courting Morocco, Nigeria and Kenya in the quest to secure fresh oil supplies and pry open new export markets for Chinese manufacturers.

 

For decades, Beijing has played on its solidarity with developing African nations for influence. In recent years, it has looked to the continent as a source of energy and natural resources as well as a growing market for goods.

  

Analysts point to China's interest in African oil, saying the  country - the world's second-largest oil consumer after the United  States - is looking to top up imports from traditional supplier Indonesia, which has been struggling to maintain production levels.

 

Unsavoury regimes

 

Hu signed energy deals with the world's top producer, Saudi Arabia, and discussed a plan with Riyadh to set up a strategic oil reserve in China.

 

Chinese efforts in the region paid off on Thursday, when China National Offshore Oil Corp. (CNOOC) completed a deal to buy a 45% stake in a Nigerian oil block for more than $2 billion.

 

Hu will travel to Nigeria on Wednesday.

 

On Friday, he will reach Kenya, where he will reciprocate for President Mwai Kibaki's visit to Beijing in August.

 

China's dollar diplomacy in the region has sparked US and European criticism of Beijing's willingness to develop trade ties with nations including Sudan and Zimbabwe.

 

Although Beijing insists it is merely doing business and adhering to its policy of non-interference in other countries' internal affairs, analysts believe China is implementing a two-pronged strategy.

 

"China has to get that oil - and if there is nowhere else to go, it will go to Sudan, Zimbabwe, Angola where the Western powers are not engaged," they said.