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What are China’s concerns and how does it influence things in Zimbabwe?

by Milicent Atieno
china zimbabwe robert mugabe

Zimbabweans and the world at large were waiting with baited breath to see the 93-year-old Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe resign last night. Well, that did not happen, though the ruling party ZANU-PF sacked him as the party leader and gave him an ultimatum of 24 hours to resign to face impeachment.

In a live televised press briefing last night, which was probably watched around the world, Mugabe said he has every intentions of presiding the ZANU-PF congress come December. There was a massive gathering in the capital, Harare who followed the speech and were disappointed when the Mugabe failed to mention his resignation.

Although, he acknowledged the state of affairs in Zimbabwe was wanting: “Whatever the pros and cons of how they [the army] went about their operation, I, as commander-in-chief, do acknowledge their concerns.”

China’s influence in Zimbabwe

It is hard to ignore the fact that a few days to the military takeover of Zimbabwe, the army’s General Constantino Chiwenga was in China. The Chinese foreign ministry said the General visit to the country was part of a “normal military exchange.”

During the time the military took over operations in Zimbabwe, China as one of the concerned foreign governments, said it was closely monitoring the situation. They, however, fell short of condemning President Mugabe and show outright support for his removal.

The underlying interest of China in Zimbabwe stems from the fact it has billions of dollars worth of investment in the Southern Africa country. China has invested in across various sectors in the country ranging from agriculture to construction.

On the flip side, China makes up the biggest export market for Zimbabwe. It is also an economic fact that Zimbabwe is heavily dependent on China for survival, especially since President Mugabe’s actions on Black empowerment that led to European settlers losing their land in the country, which was given back to the natives. These actions among others led to the Western countries imposing sanctions on the Southern Africa country, and Zimbabwe being hit by one of the biggest inflation rates in history.

Though China relations with Zimbabwe, and Mugabe, in particular, has a long history. From as early as the 70s when China supported Mugabe during his guerrilla wars against the British who had colonized the country. Mugabe failed to get the Soviet backing and then turned to China for military weapons and training for his guerrilla fighters.

As soon as the country got its independence in 1980, China and Zimbabwe established strong diplomatic and economic ties. The year after, Mugabe visited Beijing, now as President of the independent Zimbabwe, and has remained a regular visitor ever since.

Mugabe then went on to advocate Zimbabwe’s “Look East” strategy, and his resolve was hardened after the 2002 EU sanctions. About a decade ago, Mugabe told the country: “We have turned east, where the Sun rises and given our back to the west, where the Sun sets.”

During this ‘Look East’ era, China’s military influence in Zimbabwe has deepened. A development that saw Mugabe’s government buy a lot of military weapon from China including the Hongdu JL-8 jet fighter plans, the JF-17 Thunder fighters, military vehicles, weapons, and radar.

In 2008, China was forced to scale down its military shipment to Zimbabwe after a South African judge ruled a cargo bound to Harare full of ammunition such as rocket-propelled grenades and mortar rounds will not be transported overland to Zimbabwe. The international community came to condemn China for arming the Zimbabwe government following a disputed Presidential Election, which the opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai is believed to have won. Ever since, Beijing has listed Zimbabwe as a limited level military trading partner.

Mugabe reign has seen the Business Environment get worse for Chinese interests

Following the Mugabe’s look east policy, and the EU sanctions in the country, the Zimbabwe inflation rate went out of control. The environment for doing business grew from bad to worse, and naturally, it became against the interest of Chinese companies in the country. China has since shifted its focus to other African countries like Sudan, Ethiopia, Angola, Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa.

Though Zimbabwe remains as a country of interest for Chinese business, the environment in the country has deteriorated for profitable business. It is for that reason that speculations are rife that China would be willing to support an ouster of President Mugabe with another leader. One who would bring about the reforms necessary for creating a conducive business environment. Zimbabwe presents a rare occasion when the East (China) and the West have a common ground about a country’s internal affairs.

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