As West becomes more interventionist in Africa, Zimbabwe moves militarily closer to China

Jun 4, 2011

The Mugabe government has long feared that Britain and its Western allies were working to topple it from power. Opposition parties are often accused of 'working for the imperialists.' There is indeed evidence that Western governments have been supporting some opposition parties with funds and other kinds of support. President Mugabe has been vocal in insisting on the country's 'sovereignty' and right to chart its on course without foreign interference, and has often accused Western countries of wishing to engineer 'regime change' against his government.

From time to time there have been articles in the UK media urging British military intervention in Zimbabwe, and reports that government officials at least discussed it. If so, cooler heads always prevailed against it. It was recognised that this would inevitably be seen as the former colonial power coming in to protect the interests of Zimbabwe's once-dominant white farming community, who were mostly of British origin and have had most of their farms taken from them over the past 10 years. There are certainly 'human rights' issues in Zimbabwe, but not on a scale that Britain could credibly use to justify invasion while being on good terms with scores of other governments with human rights records of equal or worse dodginess than that of the Mugabe government.

However, there are signs that the Mugabe government is on heightened alert following the aggressive recent Western intervention in Ivory Coast, and particularly the on-going one in Libya. All of a sudden it is not so taboo for the West to openly, heavy-handedly interfere in Africa any more. In southern Africa Zimbabwe is considered the 'bad boy' by the West, with several other countries having close ties to Western military establishments which the government would have pondered could potentially be used against it.

Governments that fear and mistrust the West's intentions towards them have had to evaluate their options in light of the events in Libya. The Mugabe government's choice of action seems to deliberately, publicly seek the protection of a deeper military relationship with China.

If France's role in Ivory Coast could be excused by having been under the cover of the UN, and of having the apparent support of a significant part of the population, Libya is no longer as clear cut a case as it appeared in the beginning. Britain, France and the US have gone from 'protecting civilians' against attack from Gaddhafi's army under a UN mandate, to openly stating that they will now not settle for anything less than Gaddhafi's ouster.

The Mugabe government has been playing close attention to events in Libya. According to one report of remarks he made during a Chinese official's visit, Mugabe 'accused the West of double standards, saying they were only interested in Libya's oil. He said the West was interpreting the UN resolution to mean permission 'to bombard any places of their choice in Libya.'

Relations between Zimbabwe and Libya have waxed and waned over the years, but there is little doubt that Gaddhafi's Libya was considered an ally by the Mugabe government. At various times over the last ten or so difficult years in Zimbabwe, assistance, mainly in the form of oil during severe fuel shortages, were sourced from Libya.

But Mugabe's bitter attacks against the West's pulverising of Libya with bombs may also be out of concern that it may indicate a renewed willingness to take on governments like his that are considered Western-unfriendly. An election is looming in Zimbabwe, and there are increasing reports of the intimidation and violence that have come to characterise voting in the past. Mugabe and his government know they will be under closer scrutiny over the next election, and may fear that it will be harder to get away with a 'victory' as messy and controversial as that of 2008.

One defensive posture seems to move the country further into China's orbit as a counter-measure to the risk of a robust Western 'engagement' on Zimbabwe, even if it is not in the blatant form of those in Ivory Coast and Libya.

Diplomatic relations between China and Zimbabwe have always been good, with the latter often defending the latter when under Western criticism. In recent years economic ties have shot up as Zimbabwe's ties with Britain and other Western countries have cooled.

In recent months there has been a marked strengthening of military relations between the two countries as well.

The Zimbabwean parliament has just approved a US 98 million dollar loan from China to build a new training school for the armed forces. The parliamentary rubber stamping happened long after construction had started, and despite some heated but apparently muted objection to a loan for military purposes when so many other essential sectors were in need of funds.   

A few days ago a senior Chinese military official paid a visit to Harare, heading ''a military delegation which is in the country to share experience with their Zimbabwean counterparts." His courtesy call on the president was given prominence in the government media, as if a point was being made. That could well be the case, the point being that in case any should be tempted to consider 'regime change' against the Mugabe government, it enjoys close and growing security cooperation, and presumably protection from 'big brother' China.

The Zimbabwe Review


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