by John J. Metzler
Weirs Times Contributing Writer
UNITED NATIONS—China’s President Xi Jinxing visited southern Africa both to build upon booming business relations and improve cozy political ties between the People’s Republic and key regional states. Beijing is already the African continent’s top trade partner with $222 billion in commerce; moreover China is weaving a vast web of infrastructural, road and rail projects which will help speed a flow of natural resources to China’s industries. PRC trade with Africa exceeds declining American commerce with Africa by a factor of three to one.
While much of the visit dealt with Beijing’s commercial and foreign investment ties to Africa’s vast natural resources, the trip equally underscored the comradely political relations with countries such as Zimbabwe, Xi Jinxing’s first stopover. The PRC president and Zimbabwe’s long-ruling dictator Robert Mugabe underscored the two countries’ ties which date back to Zimbabwe’s independence struggle in former Rhodesia in the 1970’s.
Comrade Bob Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe since independence in 1980. The mineral rich and once bountiful food exporting southern African land had been reduced to a socialist quagmire facing food shortages, endemic corruption, emigration and entrenched authoritarian rule.
Xi Jinxing extolled that Zimbabwe has been an “all weather friend of China.” Comrade Bob Mugabe in turn described China as “Zimbabwe’s best friend” on the global stage.
Just recently Mugabe was awarded China’s Confucius Peace Prize, a curious accolade previously awarded to Fidel Castro among others.
Mugabe’s ruling Zimbabwe African National Union/Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) still uses the archaic political phraseology of comrades and gatherings are addressed with the greeting “comrades and friends.” Yet the ZANU-PF party is rife with internecine strife and machinations reflecting both corruption and the jockeying to succeed Comrade Bob who is now 91 and increasingly frail but still in control.
According to Zimbabwean economist Vince Musewe, “The race to the bottom is accelerating at full speed.” Writing in the newspaper NewsDay he adds, “It will certainly take us some time and much effort to re-invent a new Zimbabwe,” which must have “an ethically responsible and accountable political leadership.”
China’s trade with Zimbabwe reached $1 billion; tobacco, not to mention nickel and other minerals are being sold to China. While Western countries have for the most part kept arms length from Zimbabwe, the PRC has curried close political and commercial ties. China remains Zimbabwe’s largest foreign investor; investment grew from $460 million in 2011 to $600 million in 2013 according to official Beijing sources.
Curiously, the Chinese Yuan currency is one of a number of foreign currencies which circulate in the impoverished land along with the American dollar and South African Rand; after years of hyper inflation Zimbabwe discontinued its official currency whose banknotes ran out of space for zeros.
Beijing’s contemporary contacts with Africa deeply contrast from the 1960’s when Chinese delegations visited the continent to promote revolution, support “liberation movements” and
to provide a political sounding board for Maoist ideology. Today the setting evokes China, Inc. where Beijing promotes trade, investment and what amounts to a buying up the board of resource companies which can ensure a flow of supplies. Despite Mainland China’s economic slowdown, the country is ensuring long term bets and commitments to key commodities for the future.
Some African commentators have balked at what they view as Chinese “neo-colonialism,” a view which Beijing firmly renounces. In Zambia for example, Chinese firms own large sectors of the copper mining industry. China’s commercial ties, especially scooping up natural resources, and mineral rights, has long eclipsed promoting communism.
After Zimbabwe, Xi Jinping visited South Africa, still the continent’s powerhouse, for a China/African Summit, where the PRC pledged a total of $60 billion in aid and loans for more than thirty African states. Some $6.5 billion are investments and loans slated for South Africa’s infrastructure; about a third will go to South African railways.
People’s China’s political, commercial and infrastructural inroads into the African continent pose a profound and looming geopolitical danger to American and European interests. Through its alignment with resource-rich though very often authoritarian states such as Zimbabwe, Beijing has created a commercial and political dependence with key African countries.
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.