Old friend never be forgotten: China’s stance on Zimbabwe

Authors: Jamal Laadam & Wang Li

To the most people who believe in the doctrine of power politics, what China needs from Africa is only to guarantee its consistent supply of natural resources, open new markets and create strong alliances in Africa. Meanwhile, Africa in general can receive investment and multiple aid from China.

This is quite superficial with regards to the Sino—African relations. China has long stated that the two sides have shared the same past experiences of the Western powers’ exploitation and also have the future destinies shared to become peaceful and prosperous states in the world. Behind this long-term relationship are their mutual respect, reciprocal understanding and high-level personal friendship. Historically, it can be traced to the mid-1950s, especially after 1963 that Chinese relationship with Africa has been the foundation of Beijing’s foreign policy strategy.

Due to this, China’s stance on the resignation of former Zimbabwe’s President Mugabe is clear and consistent: “as a good friend of Zimbabwe, China appreciates the efforts of various parties in Zimbabwe to properly resolve the relevant issue through dialogue and negotiation within the legal framework with a view to the long-term and fundamental interests of the nation. China deems that the Zimbabwean people are capable of maintaining political stability and national development.” Behind this soft tone is that China opposed to any great powers’ interference with the domestic affairs of Zimbabwe. For example, China argues that only the Zimbabwean people who will run their own business and other countries will not be allowed to dictate the future direction of Zimbabwe’s politics.

Yes, China and Zimbabwe have enjoyed friendly relations for a long time. Both peoples have stood the testing of time and ever-changing international landscape. In recent years, the practical cooperation in various fields between the two sides have continuously moved forward and brought tangible benefits to each other. China highly values its relations with Zimbabwe and stands ready to work with various parties of Zimbabwe to promote Sino-Zimbabwean friendship and across- the-board cooperation. For example, two Chinese state-owned companies, South Locomotive and Rolling Stock Co. (CSR) jointly signed an agreement with Mugabe’s regime in 2009, in exchange for an $8 billion investment in infrastructure with supply of Chinese equipment and technologies. Moreover, the Chinese are aware that the stability and development of Zimbabwe would serve the local people’s interests and are the shared aspiration of the African and the global communities.

As noted, the Chinese have indeed cherished the personal friendship with Robert Mugabe. Even though it is reported that the Beijing leaders are a little bit disappointed about this old friend Mugabe’s misleading of Zimbabwe’s economic policy which led to rampant corruption, China hopes Zimbabwe to sustain stability and security without any chaos. After all, Mugabe remains seen as making historic contribution to Zimbabwe’s national independence and liberation from the former colonial ruling. He is also an active advocate and promoter of the Pan-African movement. To most Chinese who have witnessed the past three decades, Mugabe has long been committed to Sino-Zimbabwe friendship and made important contribution to the mutual strategic partnership. Although China appeals to Mugabe’s decision to resign as the head of state, he is still seen as “a good friend of the Chinese people”.

On 24 November, just days after Mugabe’s step-down, Emerson Mnangagwa was sworn in as the president. He was a guerilla leader during the Rhodesian Bush War. After Zimbabwe became independent in 1980, Mnangagwa held a series of senior cabinet positions under Mugabe, including as minister of state security and later minister of defense. More important is that Mnangagwa had received both his military training and political leadership in the Beijing School of Ideology during the pre-independence campaign. Clearly, Chinese leaders have been well-familiar with this new President. As early as his visit to China as VP of Zimbabwe in 2015, Mnangagwa vowed to promote political confidence and pragmatic cooperation between the two sides, since China agreed to provide all assistance in economic planning, transportation and infrastructure, special economic zone and industrial park construction, capacity building as well as human resource training to Zimbabwe. In China, Mnangagwa expressed his welcome to Chinese entrepreneurs to invest in Zimbabwe. This is one of the core reasons behind Chinese official line that “China’s friendly policy towards Zimbabwe remains unchanged. We stand ready to proactively enhance the exchange and cooperation with Zimbabwe and scale China-Zimbabwe friendship to a new height in the principle of equality, mutual benefit and win-win cooperation.”

China’s policy towards Africa is of long-term strategic dimension. Therefore, China has insisted on three tenets in terms of the crisis management in Africa generally and in Zimbabwe this time. First, China appeals to all parties of Zimbabwe that they should put aside the group’s interest with a view to strive for a peaceful and proper settlement of the relevant issue under the legal framework and in light of Zimbabwe’s national stability and social order. Actually, this is the consensus among the social elites and the ordinary people as well throughout the country. Second, China has large amount of invests in Zimbabwe which has the potentials to be one of the most dynamic economies and prosperous country in Africa. By 2015, China had invested nearly 400 million US dollars, much more than many other FDI sources, into Zimbabwe. At the present time, Chinese firms in Zimbabwe are the most dominant one among foreign firms. When Mugabe made his state visit to China in 2015, during which he held meetings with Chinese President Xi who confided to Mugabe that “China won’t forget its old friends”. Third, China has consistently taken a friendly policy towards Zimbabwe, and their cooperation is comprehensive and beneficial to both peoples. Due to this, Beijing looks forwards to consolidating the further cooperation with Zimbabwe in accordance with the principle of equality, mutual benefit, and win-win cooperation, no matter who takes power in Harare.

Now, Mugabe is gone finally. But Africa‘s rising exposure to China has led to larger exports to China and have helped boost economic growth on the continent. The introduction of the New Strategic Partnership has further cemented Sino- African relations and reinforced China’s commitment to mutual economic benefit policy towards Africa. It is widely noted that just one week ago before Mugabe was advised to step-down, General Chiwenga, commander of the Zimbabwe Defense Forces, paid a “normal” working visit to China. During their meetings with the Chinese counterparts, both sides had opined that it is significant to push forward and to further strengthen mutual exchanges at all levels, deepen pragmatic cooperation in various fields, so as to promote further development of bilateral state and military relations between the two countries. Given the sanctions against Zimbabwe over the past two decades, China has been the largest military hard-ware supplier, along with its growing economic clouts. Zimbabwe has purchased from China all sorts of military equipment such as air defense radars, air craft’s and much other medical equipment; inclusive are China’s military advisers and mechanical technicians who have worked with their Zimbabwean counterparts.

With a new chapter turned in Zimbabwean history, its new president vows to develop economics as the priority of his political agenda. No matter how he takes the inspirations from Deng Xiaoping’s reforms and Chinese lessons, it is clear that the new administration headed by the old veteran guard reached out to the world that “We want change in Zimbabwe. And I’m prepared to work for any political party that can change our country from poverty to prosperity.” This is really the opportunity for China, if smartly enough, to act as a responsible power in terms of the poverty-alleviation in Zimbabwe and the stability-promoter in Africa as well.

Let’s see how the leadership in Beijing reacts to their old friend’s needs in Harare taking a new road towards domestic reform and international openness.

Jamal Laadam
Jamal Laadam
Dr. Jamal Ait Laadam, Specialist in North African and Western Sahara Issue, at Jilin University School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA).