, South Africa, Dec 4 – South African President Jacob Zuma kicked off a state visit to China on Thursday, months after his government refused the Dalai Lama a visa as trade and political ties between Pretoria and Beijing grow closer.
China is South Africa’s single largest trading partner, while South Africa is China’s largest trading partner on the continent.
Zuma held talks with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, with Li congratulating Zuma on his re-election in May as South Africa’s president.
“You have always attached high importance to South Africa’s relations with China and you have made unrelenting efforts to grow China-South Africa relations,” Li said.
During the apartheid era, Zuma’s African National Congress was supported by Moscow while Beijing backed the rival Pan Africanist Congress, but in recent years South Africa has maintained a strongly pro-China foreign policy.
In the last five years Pretoria has thrice declined a visa for the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner.
In September, dozens of Nobel laureates boycotted a meeting in Cape Town following the latest refusal, which was widely regarded as a sign of South Africa’s deference to Beijing.
Fellow laureate and anti-apartheid activist Desmond Tutu also slammed the government over the visa refusal. The meeting was forced to moved to Rome.
Chinese President Xi Jinping visited South Africa in March 2013 as part of his first foreign trip as head of state.
Zuma expressed the importance South Africa attaches to ties with Beijing with Li Thursday, telling him: “We have always appreciated our interaction between China and South Africa. I must say that we feel very much at home.”
Zuma is accompanied by a high-profile delegation including ministers for the environment, international relations, trade and energy, transport and finance.
South Africa joined the BRICS bloc of developing economies with Brazil, Russia, India and China in 2011.