More Chinese guns for Mugabe

And military advisors too

The six containers full of small arms that China shipped to Zimbabwe are somewhere off the coast of Africa. Durban in South Africa, the original transit port, didn’t work out. Someone tipped off Noseweek, an appropriately named South African magazine, about the contents of the cargo on the Chinese ship An Yue Zhang, and hell began breaking lose. The transport workers union prevented their unloading. A local bishop got a court order restricting its movement. And a German bank, which is owed money by the Zimbabwean government, acquired a court order to seize the cargo.

Realising that things were getting rather sticky in Durban, the ship quietly slipped away (or “disappeared”), reportedly to Maputo, Mozambique. But Mozambique has refused to allow it into its waters, pointing out that it was bound for Luanda, Angola anyway. The United States officially entered the fray today and “American diplomats have been instructed to press authorities in at least four nations—South Africa, Mozambique, Namibia and Angola—not to allow it to dock”. The Bush administration intends to send a special envoy to the region this week. There are reports that a new consignment of arms will now be delivered by air instead.

China’s foreign ministry has been silent. That’s probably because it didn’t know much about the deal, or more likely, is unable to do anything about it. Poly Technologies Corporation (its Chinese phonetic, “Baoli”, means “to keep the profit”) is not only run by the People’s Liberation Army—its long-time chairman is Major-General He Ping, Deng Xiaoping’s son-in-law. The company sells arms to those who can pay for them, mainly “to keep the profit”. Pakistan’s Ghauri missiles are produced using technology sold by Poly. Why, Poly even tried to smuggle AK-47s to the United States in 1996. Zimbabwe is small beer.

Poly Technologies’ export consignment was hardly unusual—and almost certainly not illegal—but the timing couldn’t be worse. Robert Mugabe is using state machinery to suppress political opposition. China is facing an international public relations debacle with the Olympic torch and Tibet. It’s backing of the Sudanese regime had already attracted international opprobrium. To be caught selling six containers of small arms to yet another thuggish African dictator at this time…well, the folks in Beijing are living in interesting times.

But while the arms shipment itself is beginning to catch the world’s attention, a more disturbing revelation relates to the presence of “Chinese soldiers in their full military regalia and armed with pistols checking at the hotel (in Mutare, Zimbabwe’s third largest city)”. What were uniformed Chinese military personnel doing in Zimbabwe? Surely, the Chinese foreign ministry can’t repeat the old mantra about “non-interference in the internal affairs” of Zimbabwe?

It’s all so cold war. It’s also something that Africa can’t afford. As Hope, a Zimbabwean blogger at Sokanwele writes:

The unfortunate side-effect of the deep resentment is some xenophobia towards the new Chinese people, and our local Chinese population, who have lived in our country for years, suffer too. But at the end of the day I think – I hope – that those new traders are just like all human beings in the world, craving freedom and maybe seeing Zimbabwe, ironically, as a way to escape the lack of freedom in their own country. I think maybe we have something in common with them in that respect.

But if the Chinese government is actually sending in soldiers, and actively lending some level of military support – advice or otherwise – to Mugabe’s efforts to subvert democracy and cow the population, then their involvement must be exposed. [Sokanwele]

Everyone knows how hard it is to stop mass killings once they start. The prudent course of action for the international community is to suspend arms deliveries to Zimbabwe until the political crisis is sorted out. It is up to China whether it wants to be part of the solution.

Update: According to SIPRI Arms Transfers Database, China was Zimbabwe’s biggest arms supplier. Among the big ticket items it supplied 12 K-8 fighter planes at US$240 million between 2005 and 2006 (excludes small arms).

J Peter Pham has more details at World Defense Review

At a time when the thuggish regime of Robert Mugabe is universally shunned by the civilized world, not least for its crackdown on the political opposition, the PRC has literally handed Zimbabwe the tools of repression: PLA’s definition of “mil-to-mil” relations includes providing a radio-jamming device for a military base outside Harare that prevents independent stations from trying to contradict state-controlled media. As one statement from the Paris-based nongovernmental organization Reporters san frontières noted, “Thanks to support from China, which exports its repressive expertise, Robert Mugabe’s government has yet again just proved itself to be one of the most active predators of press freedom.” For Beijing’s military-industrial complex, however, it may just be a matter of “customer courtesy” for a very reliable client. In late 2004, Zimbabwe paid an estimated $200 million for twelve FC-1 fighter jets and 100 military vehicles. In 2005, it spent $245 million on a dozen K-8 light attack aircraft (the K-8 is the export version of the Hongdu JL-8 jointly developed by the PRC and Pakistan). Last year, for $120 million – an amount that could have fed the entire country for three months – Zimbabwe’s octogenarian president purchased six training aircraft for his air force from the China Nanchang Aircraft Manufacturing Corporation. [WDR, Jun 07]

Guns for Mugabe

China sends some help

The An Yue Jiang, a ship belonging to China’s state-owned shipping company, has docked in the South African port city of Durban. It is carrying a cargo of “77 tonnes of small arms, including more than 3m rounds of ammunition, AK47 assault rifles, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades”.

The cargo is bound for Zimbabwe, where Robert Mugabe is insisting on remaining president despite not winning the election. Violence has already broken out, and could get worse.

The Chinese foreign ministry has ducked for cover. The South African authorities have thrown up their hands saying—quite reasonably—that they can’t legally stop the shipment over land into Zimbabwe. But the South African transport workers union has refused to unload or move the containers.

Now Chinese soldiers have been reportedly been spotted in Zimbabwe (well, they were spotted in New Delhi too this week). It remains to be seen whether the next ship from China will arrive with enough trucks, truck-drivers and porters to deliver the arms shipment to Mr Mugabe.

Now there’s probably nothing illegitimate about selling arms to the Zimbabwean government. Just like there was probably nothing illegitimate in China selling the Rwandan government US$750,000 worth of machetes in 1993. Machetes, of course, didn’t carry out the subsequent genocide. Extremist Hutus did.