Publication: China Brief Volume: 5 Issue: 15

Articles about China’s foreign policy towards Africa are more commonplace of late, mainly focusing on Beijing’s search for petroleum and other resources to power its growing economy. Sino-Sudanese relations, in particular, have taken center stage, which is understandable given the scale of suffering in Sudan and China’s contribution to the Khartoum regime’s coffers. Despite the international outrage targeted at Beijing over its support for Khartoum, few China watchers have taken adequate notice of China’s extensive ties with Zimbabwe. This April, China and Zimbabwe celebrated the 25th anniversary of the establishment of bilateral relations. Juxtaposed with growing repression in Zimbabwe, this lavish state affair underscores why a discussion of China’s relationship with Zimbabwe is both necessary and timely.

The History of China – Zimbabwe Relations

Beijing sees a valuable ally in the despotic Robert Mugabe, known the world over for his brutality and communist style agrarian reform. Today’s close ties between China and Zimbabwe stem from the Soviet Union’s fateful decision to support Joshua Nkomo over Robert Mugabe during Zimbabwe’s struggle for independence. Both men opposed colonial rule, but while Nkomo’s main arms supplier was the Soviet Union, in October 1978, and again in May 1979, Moscow rebuffed Mugabe’s attempts to solicit support. In response, Mugabe’s Zanu Party turned profoundly anti-Soviet and extended feelers to Beijing. Beijing identified this growing rift and skillfully developed relations with Zanu prior to Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980. Mugabe met with Chinese officials in January 1979 in Mozambique and both sides expressed their intent to deepen ties. With Mugabe’s decisive victory in the presidential elections of 1980, China’s close ties with Zimbabwe were cemented.

In June 1980, in one of the first official acts after independence, Zimbabwe’s Foreign Minister Simon Muzenda visited Beijing to thank the government for supporting the Zanu Party. The next year, Mugabe himself would visit Beijing. In the years to come trade and cultural exchanges were accompanied by state dinners and good will visits. The close ties between Zanu and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that persist today are an extension of these early overtures, which are routinely referred to in each countries’ state-run press. As the People’s Daily reported, “Relations between China and Zimbabwe started in the days of the liberation struggle in the African country when China aided the liberation fighters in various ways.” [1]

China and Zimbabwe Today

Sino-Zimbabwean relations have grown apace with the African nation’s isolation from the West and its neighbors. Beijing’s relations with Harare include diplomatic support, economic and trade deals, and close military ties. For Harare, an international pariah, China represents its only major international supporter and a patron for its neo-communist land reform policies and resource exploitation.

At the ceremony celebrating the 25th anniversary of the establishment of bilateral relations, the Chinese Ambassador Chang Xianyi affirmed Beijing’s “profound fraternal relationship” with Harare, describing ties as “an all-weather friendship.” [2] At the same event Zimbabwean acting foreign minister Herbert Murerwa recognized that China was now Harare’s single largest investor and called for increased efforts to develop Zimbabwe’s extensive natural resources.

Given Zimbabwe’s severe economic problems and estrangement from western technology, sources of capital and trade, Mugabe is right to see China as a critical ally. At the same time, Mugabe’s “Look East Policy” provides Beijing with opportunities to unearth Zimbabwe’s valuable natural resources and secure lucrative deals for Chinese state-owned firms.

Trade and Economics

In December 2003, Premier Wen Jiabao said, “China respects and supports efforts by Zimbabwe to bring about social justice through land reform.” [3] Indeed, Beijing’s economic support for Harare remains strong, and through its efforts, Beijing has secured the contracts to develop Zimbabwe’s agricultural, mineral and hydroelectric resources.

China supplies Zimbabwe with expertise, technical assistance, and agricultural equipment, including tractors and agro-processing. The Chinese state-owned firm, China International Water and Electric, has been contracted to farm 250,000 acres in southern Zimbabwe. Chinese and Zimbabwean developers believe the project will yield 2.1 million tons of maize every year, and require the building of a massive irrigation system. It remains unclear how Zimbabwe will pay for the project, although unconfirmed reports claim payment will be made in tobacco, which China purchases in large quantities. [4]

Through lines of credit at Chinese banks, China supports Zimbabwe’s small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs). With this assistance, Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Small and Medium Enterprises has set aside $12 billion for disbursement to SME’s. Industries receiving funds include textile, soap, tile and fiberglass manufacturers. Large state-owned firms, like the Zimbabwe Iron and Steel Company, which is presently being refurbished, also receive Chinese assistance.

China also fosters person-to-person contacts through “soft” economic approaches. Last year Beijing and Harare signed a tourism agreement that Zimbabwe hopes will boost Chinese tourists from 10,000 to 25,000. Conferences and talk shops, like the 6th Joint Committee on China-Zimbabwe Economy and Trade held in Beijing last September, also play a role in bolstering personal ties among elites and underscore Beijing’s commitment to Harare.

Yet, perhaps most appealing to Beijing are Zimbabwe’s vast mineral and precious metal deposits and its inability to unearth these assets due to the nation’s vast poverty and estrangement from the West. Zimbabwe has the second largest deposits of platinum in the world, estimated at over $500 billion, but due to resource limitations that wealth remains untapped. In all, the country has deposits of more than 40 minerals including ferrochrome, gold, silver, and copper.

Nor have Zimbabwe’s leaders hesitated to use natural resources as a lure. Witness the remark by the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe’s Governor, Dr. Gideon Gono, in a meeting with the Deputy Governor of the People’s Bank of China: “I would like to unveil to the Chinese people the vast investment opportunities that…abound in Zimbabwe, including our natural resource endowments.” [5] Beijing already has deals in place for coal and coke concessions in return for financing and mining equipment. In return for Harare’s guarantees, China’s National Aero-Technology Import and Export Corporation (CATIC) and China North Industries Corporation (NORINCO) have agreed to finance multi-billion dollar expansion projects by Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority and Hwange Colliery Company, respectively. [6] It is worth noting that the U.S. government sanctioned NORINCO on several occasions for proliferation related activities.

Diplomatic and Military ties

As can be expected, China and Zimbabwe have supported each other’s initiatives in international organizations. In 2004, the two nations collaborated at the UN Commission on Human Rights to block resolutions that would have seen both condemned for human rights abuses. Previously, at the second meeting of the China-Africa Cooperation Forum in December 2003, Mugabe said: “China’s politics have always been pro-Africa, pro-third world, anti-imperial and anti-hegemonic.” [7]

China does not seek to encourage Zimbabwe’s political reform or observance to human rights standards. Generally speaking, Beijing’s only real condition on Harare has been its adherence to China’s “One-China” principle. Zimbabwe’s leaders have gladly obliged, regularly expressing their enthusiasm for Chinese “reunification.”

Moreover, Chinese and Zimbabwean military ties are among the closest on the African continent. In April 2005, Zimbabwe’s air force received six K8 jet aircraft to be used for training jet fighter pilots and for “low intensity” military operations, and the year before, a Chinese radar system was installed at Mugabe’s $13 million mansion in the Harare suburbs. Most importantly, in June 2004, Zimbabwe’s state-run press reported the purchase of military equipment from China, including 12 FC-1 fighter planes and 100 military vehicles, worth an estimated $240 million. This order, which had been kept secret, circumvented the state procurement board tasked with appropriating Zimbabwe’s $136 million defense budget. [8]

Implications for Zimbabwe and the Region

As Zimbabwe has spiraled into chaos, its neighbors have not remained immune. In June, Mozambique’s President Guebuza and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso met and discussed the harm cause by Zimbabwe to Mozambique’s economy. The effects of thousands of displaced Zimbabwean refugees living on the Mozambique boarder has been destabilizing. In total, almost 3 million Zimbabweans desperate for work and food have fled to Mozambique and neighboring South Africa and Botswana.

Beijing’s arms sales to Harare directly oppose South African Foreign Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s request that China stop selling arms in sub-Saharan Africa. South Africa – Zimbabwe’s most influential neighbor – has been roundly criticized for ignoring Zimbabwe’s collapse. Thabo Mbeki, South Africa’s president, is largely responsible for this failure. The EU in particular has led the charge with Baroso calling on the African Union and South Africa to confront Mugabe, and voicing his disappointment with the results. The People’s Daily on June 26th, reporting on Baroso’s trip to Mozambique and South Africa, wrote: “Mbeki has been under increasing pressures in recent days for his ‘diplomatic silence’ on Zimbabwe’s ongoing clean up campaign.” [9]

Coincidentally, as Mr. Baroso and Mr. Mbeki argued in Pretoria, a CCP delegation arrived in Harare. Mugabe hailed Sino-Zimbabwe ties since the “liberation struggle,” while the delegations leader Tan Jalin discussed the need to “exploit opportunities existing in one another’s country to derive mutual benefits.” [10] This coincidence, coupled with the absence of a statement by Baroso on China’s support for Zimbabwe, highlights Beijing’s ability to leverage its influence to avoid public criticism.

Looking Forward

It seems likely that Mugabe will become increasingly reliant on Beijing for economic and military support as Zimbabwe deteriorates. Thus, in the short-term Zimbabwe’s chaotic condition may be an advantage for Beijing. This also means Beijing will continue to support Harare unconditionally while piling up various claims on Zimbabwe’s natural resources and other commodities. Without competition from Western firms, Zimbabwe will remain China’s exclusive resource base as long as Mugabe is president.

But cracks are beginning to emerge in the relationship. In May, Nyasha Chikwinya, the head of the Zanu PF women’s league, called for police to crack down on Chinese “engaging in illegal foreign currency deals.” [11] Zimbabwe’s markets are flush with cheap Chinese goods and traders, catalyzing budding anti-Chinese sentiments. Yet, as long as Mugabe retains power it is unlikely these feelings will harm the broader relationship.

Mugabe is 81 and the cult-of-personality by which he rules will almost certainly fail to provide a smooth leadership succession. The current fragile state of the country makes civil war the most likely outcome if the President dies in office. Beijing would do well to take note of Zimbabwe’s land redistribution strategy. China’s Zimbabwe investments, particularly in the agricultural and mining sectors, carry significant sovereign risk and Beijing is gambling it can manage relations to guarantee its claims in what will almost certainly be the chaotic transition period to come.

1. “China, Zimbabwe Sign Technological Cooperation Agreement,” People’s Daily, July 15, 2003.

2. “China, Zimbabwe friendship further strengthened: ambassador,” Xinhua, April 23, 2005.

3. “China grants Zim tourism destination status,” The Herald Online (Harare), December 17, 2003.

4. Andrew Meldrum, “Mugabe hires China to farm seized land,” Guardian Unlimited, February 13, 2003.

5. “Take Cue from China’s Transformation, Zim urged,” The Herald (Harare) May 25, 2005.

6. “Chinese Demand Coal Guarantees,” Financial Gazette (Harare) May 20, 2005.

7. “China-Africa co-op forum ministerial meeting opens,” China Daily, December 15, 2003.

8. “Zimbabwe: Editor Discusses State’s Purchase of Fighter Jets From China,” Johannesberg Radio 702 (English) June 10, 2004.

9. “Barroso raise concerns over Zimbabwe situation,” The People’s Daily June 26, 2005. https://english.people.com.cn/200506/26/eng20050626_192384.html

10. “Zimbabwe to consolidate relations with China,” Xinhua June 26, 2005. https://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2005-06/26/content_3139546.htm

11. “Chikwinya calls for the arrest of Chinese,” Daily Mirror (Zimbabwe) May 27, 2005.