Chinese Soldiers and Arms Exports Embroiled in Zimbabwe’s Electoral Impasse

Chinese soldiers were spotted patrolling the streets of Mutare, Zimbabwe. The total number of PLA soldiers in Mutare is unconfirmed, but eyewitness accounts place 10 Chinese soldiers in full military regalia equipped with pistols with 70 Zimbabwean soldiers checking into a hotel (Zimbabwejournalists.com, April 15). Western media reports state that the Chinese soldiers were supposedly visiting strategic locations such as border posts, key companies and state institutions (Independent, April 19). The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Jiang Yu, however, offered a conflicting story at a press conference on April 23, stating that, to her knowledge, China has a small contingent of instructors teaching at Zimbabwe’s Military Academy (ZMA) and that this alleged sighting was likely an educational activity organized by the Academy (Ta Kung Pao, April 23).

The sighting of Chinese soldiers in Mutare coincided with the disruption in offloading a consignment of Chinese weaponries headed for Zimbabwe during its transit through Durban, South Africa. A total of six containers weighing 77 tons on the Chinese vessel An Yue Jiang—reportedly containing three million rounds of ammunition for AK47 rifles, the primary assault weapon used by the Zimbabwe Defense Force, 1,500 rocket propelled grenades and 3,500 mortar bombs—was docked briefly at the outer anchorage of the Port of Durban (All Africa, April 16). In shipping documentations held by South African authorities that were leaked to journalists, the manufacturer of the weaponries is Poly Technologies, a Chinese state-owned arms company that produces missiles and other military products, and is a subsidiary of China Poly Group Corporation, a mega defense manufacturing company headquartered in Beijing. The value of the entire cargo is reportedly worth $1.245 million. The shipments destined for Zimbabwe were to be offloaded in Durban and shipped across South Africa to landlocked Zimbabwe, but transport was barred by South Africa’s High Court after it caused a massive uproar in South Africa, which turned into a flashpoint for international condemnation of China’s support for the Mugabe regime. The countervailing protests that embroiled all of southern Africa forced the Chinese vessel off South Africa’s port and somewhere into the southern African coast while it sought a friendly port to offload the weapon shipments. After news reports surfaced that the shipment was most likely headed for Mozambique, Angola or Namibia, all close allies of China, all the countries have reportedly refused to allow the cargo to be unloaded and shipped overland into Zimbabwe (Recent World News, April 22; Spiegel Online, April 22). On April 24, the Chinese Foreign Ministry announced that the shipping company China Ocean Shipping (Group) Company (COSCO) has recalled the cargo citing Zimbabwe’s inability to receive the cargos (Xinhua News Agency, April 24). The Foreign Ministry spokesperson Jiang Yu resolutely defended China’s arms sale to Zimbabwe stating that “[t]he arms shipment by An Yue Jiang was perfectly normal trade in military goods between China and Zimbabwe” (Ta Kung Pao, April 23).

China’s arms sale gaffe to Zimbabwe, particularly during the current sensitive political impasse, has called into question the ethical dilemma and human costs facing the international community in continuing to accommodate China’s “non intervention” principle to conducting foreign affairs and its impact on the international order, which Beijing has used continuously to deflect and absolve itself from taking responsibilities for its export of arms that were and continue to be used in conflict zones like during the Rwandan genocide and in the Darfur crisis.