China seeks ‘new chapter’ with resource-rich Zimbabwe: Different leader, same access

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By John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS — The setting was all about renewing an old friendship between a political pariah and the People’s Republic of China, its longtime patron.

So in his first state visit outside of the African continent, Zimbabwe’s new president Emmerson Mnangagwa visited China to reaffirm and re-enforce the close political and commercial ties which have united the two countries since Robert Mugabe, now deposed, ruled the resource-rich Southern African state.

Beijing put on the dazzling pomp and circumstance for President Managagwe’s visit which was about maintaining as close and comradely political ties as much as keeping China’s commercial lock on the natural resources pipeline open between the two states.

Zimbabwe's Emmerson Mnangagwa with maximum leader Xi Jinping.
Zimbabwe’s Emmerson Mnangagwa with maximum leader Xi Jinping.

China’s supreme leader Xi Jinping proclaimed a “new chapter” in relations. China after all was a staunch military patron of Zimbabwe’s independence movement during the Rhodesian insurgency and has maintained particularly close ties with the country since its independence in 1980.

During the darkest years of the Mugabe regime’s worst human rights abuses and political crackdowns, Zimbabwe was sanctioned and censured by the European Union and the USA. Nonetheless Mugabe’s clique could rest assured of Beijing’s quiet acquiescence.

Mugabe favored a “Look East” policy where People’s China formed his political pole star.

But what did Zimbabwe gain or learn as its resource-rich economy slipped into a pathetic free fall under state socialism? Once the breadbasket of Africa, under Mugabe’s divisive rule the country emerged as a basket case. Millions fled; many more people became impoverished as corruption infused the society.

China is investing heavily in Zimbabwe and the visit saw a government business conglomerate secure an amazing $500 million in commercial deals for the mining, agricultural and transport sectors. Beijing is focusing on the mining sector, Zimbabwe’s high quality tobacco, and agricultural production in general. China remains Zimbabwe’s fourth largest trading partner, but the African country’s largest foreign investor.

Beijing’s aid packages remain widespread throughout Africa, but with particular focus on resource rich states such as Angola, Sudan and Zambia.

Despite Chinese assistance, Zimbabwe’s 17 million people are saddled with a paltry per capita income of $1,000 annually. Mugabe’s anti-West rhetoric poisoned the waters and guaranteed the country’s isolation. Zimbabwe was suspended from the Commonwealth due to the former government’s political authoritarianism and anti- British policies.

On the eve of the November 2017 coup against Mugabe, the commander of Zimbabwe Defense Forces was feted in Beijing on an official tour. But soon thereafter the military toppled the 93 year old ruler, Mnangagwa, a former loyalist, was sworn in a President. Many observers saw China’s Hidden Hand in ousting Mugabe after 37 years in power.

Mnangagwe, himself 75, known as the “crocodile” for his brutal but wily actions, promises elections later this year.

Perhaps, but Beijing did not miss a beat with its newfound comrade. Since the new government assumed office, Beijing has offered over $1 billion in aid.

Upon his return from China, the President proclaimed, “The trip was a huge, massive success. We have now escalated our relations from the all-weather friendship status to the level of Comprehensive Strategic Partnership and Co-operation. This is the highest level which China has with other nations, so Zimbabwe has been elevated to this status.”

Zimbabwe’s state controlled media related that China would gain over $1 billion in funding for the Hwange Thermal Power station, expanding the Robert Mugabe International Airport, a new Parliament Building, and construction of a pharmaceutical plant.

But is Zimbabwe casting a wider net for friends beyond the Far East? President Mnangagwe stated, “In this new era Zimbabwe is open to the world, and governments, businesses and individuals all are looking to do business with us.” He added, “ The new Zimbabwe must embrace the international community in order to secure crucial foreign investment.”

Interestingly in the wake of Mnangagwe’s return from Beijing, two U.S. Senators Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Chris Coons (D-DL), who were instrumental in drafting an amendment to the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Act, were in Harare to discuss warming ties with Washington. There are strong hints that the Trump administration may be willing to loosen trade ties with Zimbabwe should the African state move towards genuine elections and a more open civil society. Current U.S. trade with Zimbabwe is negligible given suffocating sanctions.

The State Department said earlier it would discuss lifting U.S. sanctions if Zimbabwe began enacting political and economic reforms. But political reforms and transparency have a long way to go, especially when Washington is watching. Beijing’s indifference may be more agreeable.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]