Zimbabwe’s Enabler: How Chinese Arms Keep Mugabe in Power

July 16, 2008

by Brett Schaefer and John Tkacik, Jr. 

For decades, China has been a stalwart ally of Robert Mugabe. This relationship began in the 1970s, when China armed Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) guerrillas against white rule in Southern Rhodesia.[1] Subsequently, it was no surprise when China and Russia vetoed a July 12 United Nations Security Council resolution to sanction Mugabe and key figures in his government for their role in unleashing a campaign of violence and intimidation that forced opposition presidential candidate Morgan Tsvangarai to withdraw from last month's Zimbabwean run-off election. This incident is only the most recent example of the detrimental role China plays in Africa -- and elsewhere -- as the protector of despots and enabler of repression. With the 2008 Olympic Games on the horizon, the U.S. should not ignore what is a clear and dangerous trend.

China and Mugabe: A Dismal Pair

In March, Zimbabwe held presidential and parliamentary elections. Opposition candidates won a majority of parliamentary seats, and opposition candidate Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change won a plurality of votes, thus forcing a run-off election for president against Mugabe. The results of the March election were shocking blows to Mugabe and his Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) supporters.

Determined to win the run-off election, Mugabe and the ZANU-PF launched a three-month campaign of intimidation that saw over 100 opposition supporters killed, thousands injured, and widespread destruction of property. As a result of this violence, Tsvangirai withdraw from the election. Without an opponent and continuing to intimidate voters, Mugabe won the June 27 run-off election with over 85 percent of the vote.

China, it seems, may have played a major role in Mugabe's decision to hold onto power. According to The Washington Post, when Mugabe lost re-election on March 29, he believed he was defeated. But when he told his top security officials that he planned to step down, Zimbabwe's army chief General Constantine Chiwenga insisted that he would conduct a "military-style campaign against the opposition" that would ensure Mugabe remained in power.[2]

In order to conduct such a "campaign," the Zimbabwean military needed to ensure that its stocks of weapons and ammunition were sustainable. Considerable circumstantial evidence indicates that Mugabe and Chiwenga turned to China for precisely such a campaign donation.
Such assistance would hardly be unprecedented; China has a long history of supporting Mugabe. For instance, according to George Washington University scholar David Shinn, China began selling J-7 fighter jets and radar to Zimbabwe in 1989. As recently as 2005, Zimbabwe's air force received six K-8 jet trainers from China as well as shortwave radio jamming equipment, which Mugabe uses to disrupt Voice of America broadcasts.[3]In return for the weapons necessary to sustain Mugabe's violent regime, Shinn notes that Zimbabwe reportedly promised China "access to its mineral wealth."[4]

Just a Phone Call Away

Thus, when Zimbabwe called for help, Chinese assistance arrived in short order. On April 16, several sources reported uniformed Chinese military personnel, wearing side arms, had arrived in the city of Mutare, a stronghold of support for Morgan Tsvangirai.[5] These reports also noted that the Chinese were accompanied by 70 senior Zimbabwean army officers. That same day, a Chinese arms ship, the An Yue Jiang, attempted to offload a large cargo of small arms and ammunition for the Zimbabwe military at the South African port of Durban,[6] but the ship was boycotted by South African longshoremen and subsequently forced to seek a friendlier port.[7]

Eight days later, with the An Yue Jiang still unable to offload its cargo, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson announced that the Chinese shipper (China Ocean Shipping Company -- COSCO) "has decided to recall the ship."[8] However, by April 27, Jane's Defense Weekly had reported the An Yue Jiang had docked at Luanda, Angola.[9] Finally, on May 6, Zimbabwe's information minister declared that the Chinese arms shipment was already in Zimbabwe.[10]

Yet, roughly three weeks later, on May 26, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman termed such reports a "groundless fabrication" and insisted that the "relevant military goods will be shipped back with the ‘An Yue Jiang' which is now on its way home."[11] And a month after that, the foreign ministry would only confirm that "the An Yue Jiang has already returned to China," without mentioning the ultimate disposition of its cargo.[12]

Nonetheless, on June 5, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Christensen told the Senate that "it's our understanding that that shipment of arms sales -- that shipment of arms, which is over $1 million, we believe, in arms -- was sent back to China." Although Christensen attributed the recall as a response to concerns voiced by the international community, the U.S. government has been unable to verify the Chinese foreign ministry's statement that the cargo had, in fact, returned to China with the An Yue Jiang.

Regardless of whether the An Yue Jiang shipment arrived in Zimbabwe, one crucial fact remains undeniable: Robert Mugabe's Chinese-armed military machine was responsible for the tsunami of violence that engulfed the run-off presidential election "campaign."

As a result of the electoral violence, the United States and the European Union urged that the balloting be postponed. The Chinese government, however, declared its hope "for a smooth completion of the work of the presidential election, and the restoration of the country's stability and development as soon as possible (jin kuai)."[13] Clearly, the Chinese government's intention was to get the Zimbabwe voting over quickly -- and Mugabe re-elected -- intending that controversy would dissipate by the opening of the Beijing Olympics.

Despite a boycott by the opposition, the "run-off" election was held on June 27 and, of course, Mugabe won with over 85 percent of the vote. The U.S., Europe and most of the African Union countries declared Mugabe's win illegitimate. But not China. Indeed, by July 12, China -- along with Russia -- had vetoed a U.N. Security Council draft resolution on Zimbabwe, claiming that an African Union "mediation effort" had not had "enough time." The Washington Times reported that an emboldened Mugabe now plans new "elections" to reverse the majority in parliament that Tsvangirai's party won in March.[14]

A Final Option

China's status as a major economic power renders it impervious to any trade, financial or economic sanctions the United States could possibly inflict upon it. In fact, such sanctions would constitute "mutual assured economic destruction." But there is no need for the world's democracies to avert their eyes and pretend that China is, somehow, a "responsible stakeholder" in the international effort to protect human rights.

As such, the United States has very few diplomatic tools capable of inducing China to restrain its over-enthusiastic support for dictatorship and repression around the world. The President could have used ambiguity regarding his attendance at the Olympic opening ceremony to good advantage three months ago in the aftermath of the tragedy in Tibet. By failing to do so, he has virtually assured a self-fulfilling prophecy: cancelling his attendance will indeed insult his hosts.

But the damage the President will do to American principles by attending a full-throated celebration of China's power -- unleavened with justice or mercy -- is worse than a breach of diplomatic protocol. The President suddenly discovering that he has other business to attend to in Washington can still send a message to China's communist leaders, to the Chinese people, and to our friends around the world that America still stands for the principles of liberty and freedom. Such an announcement is the only option the President has left. 


references in this report

[1] For some history of China's involvement in Zimbabwe, see also Abraham McLaughlin, "A rising China counters US clout in Africa, Trade drives political role ahead of Zimbabwe's election," The Christian Science Monitor, March 30, 2005, at http://www.csmonitor.com/2005/0330/p01s01-woaf.html (July 16, 2008).
[2] Craig Timberg, "Inside Mugabe's Violent Crackdown: Notes, Witnesses Detail How Campaign Was Conceived and Executed by Leader, Aides," The Washington Post, July 5, 2008, p. A01, at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/
2008/07/04/AR2008070402771.html (July 16, 2008).
[3] Violet Gonda, "Zimbabwe government jams radio stations," SW Radio Africa, June 27, 2006, at http://www.swradioafrica.com/news270606/jam270606.htm (July 16, 2008).
[4] David H. Shinn, "Africa and China's Global Activism," a paper presented at a National Defense University Pacific Symposium on "China's Global Activism: Implications for U.S. Security Interests," June 20, 2006, at http://www.ndu.edu/inss/symposia/pacific2006/shinnpaper.pdf (July 16, 2008).
[5]David Baxter, "Armed Chinese soldiers police Mutare Streets," Association of Zimbabwe Journalists, April, 15, 2008, at http://www.zimbabwejournalists.com/story.php?art_id=3944&cat=2 (July 16, 2008).. See also blog reports at http://www.sokwanele.com/thisiszimbabwe/archives/867 (July 16, 2008).
[6] A total of six containers weighing 77 tons on the Chinese vessel An Yue Jiang reportedly contained 3 million rounds of ammunition for AK-47 rifles, 1,500 rocket propelled grenades, and 3,500 mortar bombs, according to Russell Hsiao, "Chinese Soliders and Arms Exports Embroiled in Zimbabwe's Electoral Impasse," Jamestown Foundation China Brief, April 29, 2008, at http://www.jamestown.org/china_brief/article.php?articleid=2374129 (July 16, 2008).
[7] Celia W. Dugger and David Barboza, "China says it may recall Zimbabwe arms shipment," International Herald Tribune, April 22, 2008, at http://www.iht.com/articles/2008/04/22/africa/arms.php (July 16, 2008).
[8] Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Jiang Yu's Regular Press Conference on April 24, 2008, at http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/eng/xwfw/s2510/2511/t429018.htm (July 16, 2008).
[9] Helmoed-Römer Heitman, "Chinese ship with Zimbabwe munitions sails to Luanda," Jane's Defense Weekly, May 1, 2008, at http://www.janes.com/extract/jdw2008/jdw36518.html (July 16, 2008).
[10] Lance Guma, "Zimbabwe: Minister Claims Controversial Chinese Arms Now in Country," SW Radio Africa (London), May 6, 2008, at http://allafrica.com/stories/200805061078.html (July 16, 2008).
[11] "Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Qin Gang's Remarks on the Untrue Report about the ‘Anyuejiang' Cargo Ship," Ministry of Foreign Affairs, People's Republic of China, May 26, 2008, at http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/eng/xwfw/s2510/t440463.htm (July 16, 2008).
[12] "The regular press meeting held by the spokesman of Ministry of Foreign Affair of PRC," Ministry of Foreign Affairs, People's Republic of China, at http://big5.fmprc.gov.cn/gate/big5/www1.fmprc.gov.cn/
chn/xwfw/fyrth/t450510.htm (July 16, 2008).
[13] Regular press briefing held by spokesman of Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Liu Jianchao, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, People's Republic of China, June 24, 2008, at http://big5.fmprc.gov.cn/gate/big5/www1.fmprc.gov.cn/
chn/xwfw/fyrth/t450510.htm (July 16, 2008).
[14] Geoff Hill, "Third election foreseen for Mugabe's party," The Washington Times, July 15, 2008, at http://www.washtimes.com/news/2008/jul/15/third-election-foreseen-to-
restore-mugabes-party/ (July 16, 2008).


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