As China’s appetite for African resources grows insatiable, so grows the insecurity risk on the continent as weapons are making their way into the hands of some particularly unsavoury regimes. The most notorious of these is Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, who in exchange for giving the People’s Republic of China access to some of Africa’s most desired minerals, has accepted constant arms shipments.
Reports released in mid November 2011 indicate that the Chinese Government sent the Zimbabwean Defence Force a shipment of 20,000 AK-47 rifles in August 2011. Zimbabwe is also expecting further arms deliveries by the end of 2011, which undoubtedly spells trouble for a country already mired in security problems, especially as it faces a constitutional referendum and presidential election, both of which are scheduled to take place in 2012.
The latest delivery, reportedly arranged by Defence Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa, a powerful leader suspected to be running the country behind the scenes, is said to have included uniforms, as well as 21,000 pairs of handcuffs, which could potentially be used to detain citizens. Mnangagwa is expected to vie for power in the post-Mugabe era, in a transition not expected to be particularly peaceful, and the international community has repeatedly called out against the country’s arms deals, believing they will be used against Zimbabweans themselves.
Such arms shipments, however, are not new. China has regularly sold military supplies to Zimbabwe since 2004, including 139 vehicles and twenty-four combat planes. China, which is Zimbabwe’s leading arms supplier, also provided at least US$66 million worth of small arms during Zimbabwe’s involvement in the civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Furthermore, the Chinese Governmemade headlines in the run-up to Beijing Olympics in 2008 by trying to ship arms to Mugabe’s government, a move which was subsequently decried by some of the country’s Anglican bishops. China later recalled the shipment.
China pushes its agenda further into Zimbabwe
Although China defends its weapons sales on the grounds that it will not, unlike Western countries, interfere with the Zimbabwe’s sovereignty, a closer look at Chinese dealings in the country reveal that this is simply not the case. China’s arms deliveries always come with a price. In exchange for weapons, China is expected to receive numerous natural resources, including chrome, aluminium, zinc, alluvial diamonds, and prized lithium. In a move that undoubtedly angers Western companies as well as the citizens of Zimbabwe, China has also been excluded from the country’s controversial foreign investment policy which forces foreign companies to cede 51% of their ownership to locals. In another blow to national sovereignty, China will have access to valuable farming land, which it will use to grow food for its citizens back home. In addition to these latest arms shipments, the Chinese Government has also recently handed out a US$97 million loan to help construct a Defence College outside Harare, to be built by a Chinese company. Many have labelled the College as nothing more than a ‘giant spy centre’, which will help aid Mugabe’s regime and possibly further human rights abuses in the country. This particular deal also includes a twenty-year arrangement with Zimbabwe’s diamond mines in Marange, which will be used to pay back the loan. However, this deal is also causing controversy, as Chinese mining firms are allegedly being allowed to kick locals in Marange off their lands to further their ambitions there. And Chinese intrusion doesn’t stop there: underscoring how deeply entrenched China is in Zimbabwe’s political landscape, on 23 November 2011, it was announced that the Chinese Central Television (CCTV) would begin running on all Zimbabwean programmes, to the ire of many locals who reportedly feel China is pushing its agenda too much in the country.
Chinese-Zimbabwean arms deals: Slowing down? Or speeding up?
Despite objections, both domestically and abroad, all of these plans are part of Zimbabwe’s “Look East” policy, which the country established after being isolated from the European Union and the US for Mugabe’s human rights violations. As Zimbabwe grows further isolated from the rest of the world, it will increasingly cosy up to China, a point noted by Zimbabwe’s Information Minister Webster Shamu, who recently called China a “genuine brother.” China for its part, has repeatedly praised eighty-seven-year-old Mugabe as an “old friend”. With ties expected to deepen between the two countries, arms deals look unlikely to stop, said Deborah Brautigam, an expert in China-Africa relations at American University in Washington DC. “China’s export of arms, like all its other exports, are likely on a sharp rise year by year,” Brautigam said. Although Brautigam, like other experts in the region, points out that the US has also armed African countries, as China is expected to overtake the US in terms of economic prowess in the coming decades, so too is it expected to step up its arms deals in the region. And unlike arguably the US, which in many cases attempts to encourage democratisation in African countries, China doesn’t feel the need to do so. For the near future, then, it is clear that Zimbabwe is looking to pose a huge security risk, not only to its own people, but potentially to the African continent.