Chinese officials said Hu may sign an energy deal with Saudi Arabia if "negotiations went well".

"China ... stands ready to enhance cooperation and coordinate actions with developing countries and the international community to overcome difficulties"

Zhai Jun, Chinese assistant foreign minister

But officials have also been to emphasise that the Chinese president's trip was more about shoring up political ties than securing energy supplies, especially the second leg of the tour that will cover Mali, Senegal, Tanzania and Mauritius.

China has also been working hard at building closer partnerships with Africa in recent years, and its growing influence on the continent has caused concern among some Western governments.

Zhai Jun, the assistant Chinese foreign minister, said Hu's visit to Africa – his fourth since he came to power in 2003 – and China's interest in the continent was not dominated by oil or natural resources.

"The four African countries are not countries with a lot of energy or mineral resources, therefore our relationship with African countries is not only a relationship about energy or resources," he told reporters last week.

Zhai said China was ready to work closely with Africa and Saudi Arabia in the face of a global economic slowdown.

"Developing countries, including China, Saudi Arabia and African countries are facing greater challenges," he said.

"China... stands ready to enhance cooperation and coordinate actions with developing countries and the international community to overcome difficulties."

Zhai said the Chinese leader was expected to offer more aid during the African leg of his tour in line with a pledge three years ago that Beijing would double aid to the continent.

"Cooperation is based on mutual benefit, it serves the interests of both China and people in Africa who have benefited greatly from the cooperation," he added, defending China's role in Africa.

Last year China's trade with Africa shot up to $106.8bn from just under $40bn three years earlier, according to the Chinese commerce ministry.