Blowback from Zimbabwe: China’s Faltering Strategy on Arms Exports

Publication: China Brief Volume: 8 Issue: 13

On May 17 Zimbabwean Deputy Information Minister Bright Matonga confirmed that a shipment of arms aboard the Chinese vessel An Yuejiang had arrived in Harare (The Weekender, May 17). Some sources claimed the cargo was offloaded in the Democratic Republic of Congo and some Angola, but all agreed that “three million rounds of assault rifle ammunition, 3,000 mortar rounds and 1,500 rocket-propelled grenades” were air freighted to Robert Mugabe’s embattled government. When questioned regarding this explosive news, a Chinese government spokesman promptly denied that the weapons had been delivered. The An Yuejiang was “on its way home” and reports to the contrary were “utterly groundless” [1]. China’s claim was later corroborated by David Cockcroft, the general secretary of the International Transport Workers’ Federation, when he told the International Labor Organization’s conference that the “weapons are nearly back in China” [2]. For now, we cannot know whether the weapons, in fact, arrived. Regardless, Beijing’s attempt to ship ammunition to Mugabe’s faltering regime before his country’s June 27th runoff election came at a high political price. The incident cast China’s indiscriminate “weapons for resources” development policies in harsh relief, and put the PRC at odds with the US, EU, and many of the African nations it had sought to publicly cultivate. China has often justified doing business with perennial human rights violators through its doctrine of “non-interference [in other countries’ domestic affairs]”. However, as China’s international stature grows such strict legalism will not suffice, and the country’s destabilizing arms exports will surely receive increased scrutiny.

The implications of arms transfers are tricky business for any country, especially an emerging world power like China. Weapons can be purchased, resold and recycled, and regimes and alliances can quickly change.

Since the 1980s, Beijing has followed a gradual learning curve with respect to proliferation of nuclear, chemical, biological and missile technology. It has joined a host of arms control agreements, including the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (1992), Chemical Weapons Convention (1993) and Biological Weapons Convention (1984). Significantly, none of these agreements includes human rights as a consideration in weapons sales. Most experts agree that Beijing has basically complied with the agreements to which it is party. However, the fact that the PRC is still willing to exploit technicalities and loopholes in these agreements remains worrisome. Some have accused China’s leadership of violating the “spirit of the law” on arms agreements. For instance, in 1986 China transferred to Saudi Arabia “30 or more” CSS-2 nuclear-capable ballistic missiles. The deal was primarily about cash for the Chinese, but seriously affected the regional balance of power. Saudi Arabia procured the weapons system to bolster its credibility and retaliatory capabilities against potential adversaries in the Middle East – including Israel, Iraq and Iran. In response, the US extracted a commitment from the Chinese not to export any more of its “medium range” missiles. In 1992, the Chinese, nonetheless, sold more advanced M-11 solid fuel missiles to Pakistan. China’s defense was that these weapons did not constitute “medium range” missiles.

In fact, there may have been a legal, though very little practical, basis for the Chinese argument. Yet, these were clearly the very weapons the US was seeking to discourage China from exporting.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, China’s major arms transfers were primarily based on geopolitical considerations supplemented by economic concerns. As part of China’s modernization process, military bureaucracies were encouraged to find new ways of generating revenues, and selling military equipment was a logical choice. China’s NCB proliferation activities were also used as a negative incentive to promote US cooperation on tricky issues, such as Taiwan, and thus engendered consternation from Washington to Tokyo. Indeed, North Korea was a major beneficiary of Chinese missile technology and it is even rumored that one of the nuclear devices exploded by Pakistan in May of 1998 may have been of Chinese origin (Cirincione, Rajkumar, Wolfsthal 2005).

The relative decline in China’s conventional arms exports in the 1990s ran parallel to the pursuit of a new course of diplomacy—one aimed at feeding China’s expanding economy. Accordingly, weapons transfers paved the way for preferential access to these country’s natural resources. For instance during the early to middle part of that decade, China quietly supplied the Iranians, a major supplier of Chinese crude oil, with lasers used for enriching uranium, a 300-MW-electric nuclear reactor, and copious amounts of technology used by the Iranians within their nuclear program (Cirincione, Rajkumar, Wolfsthal 2005, 246).

China has continued to transfer large quantities of conventional weapons to the developing world, including high profile transfers to regimes with poor human rights records, terrorist links and shaky legitimacy.

China has aided Iran’s ballistic missile program and sold it “tanks, armored vehicles, and artillery pieces; several hundred surface-to-air missiles and air-to-air missiles; thousands of antitank missiles and more than a hundred fighter aircraft; and a dozen small warships” as well as providing it with military-related scientific expertise, production technologies, and blueprints for advanced weapons systems (Richard Russell, Middle East Review of International Affairs, Sept. 2005). Accordingly, China and Iran’s resource cooperation has flourished.

In October, 2004 Iran’s Oil Minister Bijan Namdar-Zanganeh and the chair of China’s National Development and Reform Commission Ma Kai signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) in Beijing granting China rights to import 250 million tones of natural gas from Iran’s Yadavaran energy field over the next 25 years (The Russian Oil and Gas Report, November 3, 2004). The MOU also entitled Beijing to import 150,000 barrels a day of crude from Yadavaran’s oil fields (The Petroleum Economist, December 3, 2004). Valued at between 70 and 100 billion USD at the time, the agreement made other recent mega-deals between the Iran’s Islamic Republic and international oil companies look timid by comparison. Within days of the signing, Iran’s deputy oil minister was boasting that future Chinese natural gas exports could eventually reach 20 million tones a year – twice the amount provided for in the Yadavaran agreement (Agence France Press, November 4, 2004). And just in case the two countries had not sufficiently elucidated the extent of their energy alliance, on November 8, 2004 Zanganeh, declared that in the future Iran would “give preference to [oil] exports to China,” a clear slap at a U.S. ally and the country’s largest energy customer Japan.

By 2006, Iran was China’s third largest petroleum supplier, exporting to China almost 350,000 barrels of oil per day. Meanwhile, China’s weapons transfers to Iran have had tangible repercussions for the region. For instance, in July of 2006 a modified C-802 Silkworm missile was used by Iran’s proxy Hezbollah to target an Israeli ship – an incident in which 9 Israeli sailors were killed (Financial Times, July 9, 2006).

In addition to Iran, China also continues to maintain a high profile relationship with the government of Sudan, which has abetted an ongoing genocide in the country’s Darfur region since the early 2000s. China has transferred large numbers of weapons, trucks, helicopters and other military equipment to Sudan and, together with Russia, helped make the country Africa’s third largest arms exporter. In return for this, China’s CNPC has been granted lucrative rights in a number of Sudan’s oil development blocks. China has also become Sudan’s most important trading partner – in recent years it has been Sudan’s first or second largest export destination, and Sudan has imported more goods from China than any other country (Economist Intelligence Unit). The PRC also maintains robust contingents of troops in Sudan to protect Chinese energy and infrastructure projects – though sources disagree as to how many (AFP, Friday 18, 2007).

In the Western hemisphere, China has worked to build bridges with OPEC member Venezuela. On May 12 the two countries announced a deal to provide Hugo Chavez’s government with planes for military training as well as other arms (Canadian Financial Times, May 12).

The most recent incident in Zimbabwe has uniquely tarnished China’s image in Africa, a region it has sought assiduously to nurture ties with. While shipping arms to Zimbabwe does not contravene any of China’s obligations under international agreements, it has taken the sheen off of the “win-win” relationship promoted at the 2007 Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in Beijing.

As a major exporter of gold, platinum, nickel and chrome, Zimbabwe’s mineral resources have helped sustain China’s economic rise. Its minerals are used in everything from stainless steel to catalytic converters. These products are used within China’s growing domestic economy and in products built for export to the West. In recent years China has courted controversy through signing billions of dollars worth of agreements with the Zimbabwean government in areas ranging from tourism, to agriculture, to mining and power generation while Western countries have sought to isolate Mugabe’s repressive regime (Africa News, June 15, 2006). China is Zimbabwe’s second largest trading partner, after South Africa, and has been particularly valuable in supplying the country with military equipment and training

Yet, since the refusal of South African dock workers in Durban to unload the An Yuejiang’s cargo, African nations – prodded by the United States, Europeans and their own populations – have made a public effort to block China’s arms assistance to Mugabe’s government. In an uncharacteristically pro-active move, the South African Development Community called for a moratorium on all arms shipments to Zimbabwe (The, June 5). In this light, China’s national policy of “non-interference” starts to look like exactly the opposite. China has pointedly taken sides in what may be a zero-sum contest between Mugabe and his democratic opposition.

The public backlash was evident in the placard of one African protestor which read “Zim[babwe] needs PEACE not China guns [sic.]” (AFP, April 23 [Chinese Language]).

Today it is unclear whether the An Yuejiang’s shipment of arms made it to Harare. Either way, the reaction of regional governments provides one of the most forceful rebukes to China’s single-minded quest for access to natural resources yet. It may also provide the Chinese leadership with food for thought regarding the arms export policies and the perceptions they engender amongst would-be friends. The tension between China’s actions and aspirations is not unique to this instance. On the one hand, the Chinese leadership seeks economic resources and global allies – and after the country’s “Century of Humiliation,” the Chinese will not be held to Western rules of how the game ought to be played. On the other hand, the Chinese long to be seen as a “responsible stakeholder” in the world community – an effort which is undercut by the vigor with which they pursue development at all costs. Indeed, China’s vacillation in Zimbabwe is suggestive of a broader struggle amongst Chinese elites and leadership to define their people’s position in a resource constrained and globalized future.


1. See Ministry of Foreign Affairs, PRC “Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Qin Gang’s Regular Press Conference,” May 22, 2008,

2. See Maritime Global Net, “ Cosco Arms Ship “Nearly Home”,” June 10,