By Ed Cropley
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - A century ago, it was the explorers and infantrymen of Europe's great powers slugging it out for slices of Africa. Now, it is the agents of Chinese and Brazilian capital, but the competition is just as fierce.
Although the saga still has at least a week to run, Jinchuan swung a hefty blow this week, with a $1.3 billion bid to trump a $1.1 billion offer from Vale.
Jinchuan's juicy premium for Metorex, which operates copper and cobalt mines in Zambia and Democratic Republic of Congo, clearly demonstrates the lengths Chinese firms are prepared to go to secure natural resources for ravenous factories back home.
But it is also evidence of Chinese companies, in particular state-backed ones, being able to post top-dollar bids for foreign assets due to the cheap finance they can get from Beijing, rather than having to raise pricier commercial funding.
This aspect of Chinese growth in the new 'Scramble for Africa' is likely to fuel the sense of a playing field tilted unfairly toward Beijing, creating tension with other up-and-coming powers and undermining efforts to boost 'South-South' diplomacy.
"Chinese state-backed firms with access to cheap government export finance can easily trump the likes of Vale, who have to pay commercial, and thus more expensive rates, for finance," said Markus Weimer of London's Chatham House think-tank.
"State subsidies for national companies will continue to be watched with scornful eyes by Western governments, and increasingly by other emerging powers such as Brazil and India."
That Brazil is a rising player in Africa is nothing new.
During his time in office, former president Luis Inacio Lula da Silva made fostering commercial ties across the south Atlantic a major priority, visiting at least 25 African countries and doubling the number of embassies there.
But against China, it still lags a distant second.
On the embassy count, China comes in at 42 -- double the number of India -- and Chinese firms looking abroad can tap a wealth of funding sources, from the likes of the China Exim Bank, the Bank of China and the China Development Bank.
By contrast, besides commercial banks, Brazilian firms are largely limited to the BNDES, Brazil's national development bank -- an important player but one that steers clear of more unstable markets.
This is not to say China has it all its own way.
A preference for imported labor and heavy-handedness by Chinese managers has bred grass-roots discontent, not least in Zambia, where mine workers have been shot and wounded for complaining about pay and conditions.
"This Metorex deal really showcases the competition among the BRIC countries for resources and access in Africa, and the financial muscle and firepower that comes with major Chinese players," said Hannan Erdinger of Johannesburg-based consultancy Frontier Advisory.
(Editing by Ed Stoddard)