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Mugabe Out, Mnangagwa In: Where Does China Fit In?

The 21st century has seen one of the world’s longest serving leaders in Africa go down as a tyrant. A military takeover in November 2017 ended Robert Mugabe’s almost four-decade reign in Zimbabwe. Despite his open defiance, a massive public backed ‘coup’ forced him to tender his unwilling resignation letter on November 21st which dashed his hopes for ‘a modern dynasty’ for his family, particularly through his wife, Grace Mugabe.

Mugabe’s reign witnessed an avalanche of sanctions leveled against the African state as a result of the former president’s poor human rights records and intolerance for political opposition. In the wake of all these sanctions, one great power that has stood with him is China. China is Zimbabwe’s largest foreign investor. China’s involvement in Zimbabwe dates back to the 1970s, when Beijing surreptitiously provided ammunition and financing to Mugabe’s guerrilla forces during the Liberation era. In the intervening years, Beijing has continued to offer financial and political succor to Harare. China’s investments in the African nation cover a range of sectors, including but not limited to the railway, communications, minerals, education and highway sectors.

However, as the nation witnesses a military takeover which has culminated in the removal of Robert Mugabe and ushered in Emmerson Mnangagwa, the veteran vice-president and former spy chief as the country’s new president, the question that arises is whether Harare will cede its strong alliance with Beijing and build new bonds or will the status quo remain in force? Will Sino-Zim-African relations in general be affected given the fact that a number of African states support the change and Mugabe doubles as the last relic of the liberation struggle? For instance, AU President Alpha Conde has said that even though he is “truly delighted” by the news, he also regrets the way Mugabe’s rule has ended. Thus, the situation is dicey and more complex than it appears. Should China stay aloof and watch events as they unfold or should it interfere and to what extent and how?

Both Africa and China are connected in several ways. Africa’s Agenda 2063 – the “Africa We Want” – developed by the African Union in consultation with diverse groups from African society based on the AU vision of “an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens and representing a dynamic force in the international arena” marks a new phase for Africa’s development. This vision also ties in perfectly with the Chinese government’s dream of Chinese prosperity, collective effort, socialism, and national glory as well as the extension and the rejuvenation of Chinese glory, equality and justice for all, democracy and a strong and modern military force.

The plan for Agenda 2063 requires “each region and country to devise a plan that contributes to the vision.” Zimbabwe has the Zimbabwean Agenda for Sustainable Socio-Economic Transformation (ZIM-ASSET) 2013-2018 for “an empowered society and a growing economy.” It has therefore adopted what has been described as the “Zimbabwean Look East Policy,” which stresses Zimbabwe’s readiness to establish bilateral trade and diplomatic relations with a number of Asian countries such as China, Iran, Indonesia, Pakistan and Malaysia. China, however, has proved to be more reliable and friendly toward bilateral trade and diplomatic and cultural ties.

Zimbabwe is one African country that the Chinese government has stood by during the liberation struggle up to the present time. Mugabe, the president of Zimbabwe has been a long standing ally of Chinese leaders. Even in its recent political and land reforms which have further tainted Harare’s global image, Beijing did not turn its back on the nation and continued to do business, strengthening its ties with the South African country. The visit by President Xi Jinping accompanied by a delegation of Chinese investors to Zimbabwe in December 2015 marked another phase in their relations. The president’s visit was seen by many Zimbabweans as a signal of the mutual friendship between Zimbabwe and China. Pessimists doubting the potency of the Zimbabwean “Look East Policy” were also mesmerized by this visit. Since the signing of the Mega Deals by President Mugabe in China during his state visit to Beijing in 2014, bilateral trade between the two countries has soared.

Before Mugabe’s ouster. (Xinhua)

Sino-Zim relations have consistently followed China’s policy of win-win economic cooperation and ‘political non-interference.’ The communication sector, for instance, has seen massive improvements thanks to a joint collaboration between the Chinese Telecommunications Company ZTE and the locally based Company G-Tel in producing the latest cell phones and tablets. This has also led to the creation of jobs for young Zimbabweans.

Again, just as China was accused of human rights violations, especially after the Tiananmen turmoil in 1989 by the West which led to political isolation and economic sanctions, Zimbabwe faces similar condemnation.

The visit by the Zimbabwean military chief to Beijing has already generated a lot of speculation, both positive and negative. Interestingly, both states have reiterated their continuous commitment to the existing relations between the two countries. As argued by realists, states always put their interests ahead of everything else and this is exactly what the world is likely to witness. As rational actors, whoever takes over from Mugabe should know and understand that ‘a friend in need is a friend indeed.’ Zimbabwe’s new leadership will obviously realise the need for strengthening the Sino-Zim relations which date back several decades and have survived the test of time. There is a strong military tie with China often providing security advice, finance and ammunitions to the Zimbabwean security forces.

China’s ‘non-interference policy’ alone is a plus that has over the years prevented states from explicitly ceding relations with Beijing. Thus, whether Zimbabwe becomes a liberal democracy, illiberal or even an authoritarian state, Sino-Zim relations are unlikely to be overtly affected. Beijing will also cautiously become involved in helping to resolve the political impasse in the country which is likely to continue for a long time as China’s interests and presence in Africa continues to increase. The establishment of China’s overseas military base in Djibouti is a case in point. Beijing is Zimbabwe’s largest foreign investor and longtime ally. Thus, Beijing will not remain aloof in the face of political instability that often characterizes African politics. However, Beijing will not try to explicitly force regime change. China’s willingness to work peacefully with both democratic and authoritarian regimes in Africa has been positively viewed by African countries and African agencies are willing to work with China.

Mugabe may go, but Sino-Zim relations in particular and Sino-African relations in general will continue to flourish despite political or regime changes. As observed by Paulo Drummond and Estelle Xue Liu, 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 mutually beneficial economic policies towards Africa. At its (FOCAC‘s) first Ministerial Conference in October 2000, China made a commitment to reduce or annul 10 billion Renminbi loans owed by less-developed countries in Africa. As a consequence, ― and as noted by Zhang, Qingmin, and Song Wei, loans owed by 31 African countries totaling RMB10.9 billion were written off during the following years. The fact that only two countries in Africa have ties with Taiwan resonates with African nations.

Emmerson Mnangagwa is not new to Sino-Zim relations; he actually received his military training in both China and Egypt and as the one in charge of the country’s defense for several years, he is not a novice when it comes to supporting such strong and reliable ties. Like, his former boss, Mnangagwa is also an old friend of China. He proposed adopting the Chinese yuan as Zimbabwe’s official legal tender when he visited Beijing in 2015 and invited Chinese businessmen to invest in Zimbabwe’s key economic sectors which suggests that Sino-Zim relations are likely to continue. However, in the face of the ever changing global political and economic order, predictions don’t easily follow normative patterns.

Zimbabwean democracy is considered by stalwarts of liberal democracy as an ‘illiberal democracy’ and a nation rife with incalculable human rights abuses and violence that needs a total overhaul. Consequently, the international community, particularly the United States and the UK, are following the affairs in Zimbabwe in the post-Mugabe era and have called for the institution of a true and vibrant democracy. In fact, to quote Zimbabwean opposition politician David Coltart, “…[Zimbabweans] have removed a tyrant but not yet a tyranny.” This is the concern of the West and most Zimbabweans and the reason why other powers will push for reforms. Already, as observed by Derek Matyszak, a Harare-based senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, “behind the scenes, things are a little bit different,” in Sino-Zim relations and the recent friction between China and Mugabe’s regime over economic mismanagement and other internal issues like the indigenization law are likely to make things worse.

It is clear that the post-Mugabe era will witness dicey and complex trajectories. Zimbabweans themselves are anxiously awaiting the impact of the ‘windfalls’ of the new administration.

Much of what becomes of Sino-Zim-African relations depends on China’s ability to continuously strengthen the existing relationship in order to encourage diversification and a move toward embracing human development and a fair and open political environment that minimizes the incidents of arbitrary abuses and political violence that often characterize African politics.