Visiting Chinese Foreign minister Wang Yi this week made a cryptic message that left many asking whether or not the Beijing was shifting its foreign policy on Harare and why.
“China understands the current bottlenecks and difficulties faced by Zimbabwe but we trust that Zimbabwe has the wisdom and capabilities to address well these challenges,” Wang said.
Two contrasting views emerged thereafter and two key words are also vital in analysing this policy pronouncement—wisdom and capabilities.
The million-dollar question begging for an answer is ‘was this a subtle remark to say Zimbabwe is on its own?”
Or, is the world’s second largest economy saying Zimbabwe has the wisdom to depend on China to counterbalance western influence and the capabilities to leverage resources to further her interest?
Since taking over from longtime leader Robert Mugabe in 2017 after a military-assisted intervention, President Emmerson Mnangagwa has pursued a policy on reengagement summed up by the mantra ‘Zimbabwe is open for business”.
His predecessor Robert Mugabe had pursued a Look East policy as he attempted to lure China.
Under this new policy, several senior members of his government have been globetrotting to establish new allies, restore relations with erstwhile hostile nations and cement international affairs with existing allies.
But critics say this has been translated as an ambiguous foreign policy by Harare that has not been well received by traditional allies like China and Russia.
For instance, government has doled out millions of dollars hiring Public Relations consultancy firms to improve Zimbabwe’s image in the United States.
The US slapped Harare with sanctions at the turn of the millennium citing human rights violations and election fraud.
The sanctions have worsened Zimbabwe’s credit risk resulting in Harare failing to access concessionary funding.
Lawrence Mhandara, University of Zimbabwe International Relations lecturer, said China could be exerting moral pressure on Zimbabwe to be strategic in its choice of friends.
“The wisdom that China is referring to is simple: he appears to be saying while you have your appeasement policy, take stock of what you have realised.
Is the effort worth it? The conclusion then is that China’s interest in the reengagement matrix is not peripheral.
Beijing wants Harare to be mindful of two realities—China stood by Zimbabwe against colonial repression and western sanctions and provided economic, political and diplomatic cover when Zimbabwe was most vulnerable,” Mhandara said.
“Secondly, China is a global power on the ascendancy and has been carving its sphere of influence in the global south, and is determined to protect its gains.
Given that context, the ‘wisdom’ that China expects from Zimbabwe is simply to guarantee Beijing that they will not fall back in the hands of its ideological rivals – the West.” China, Mhandara added, is happy to see Zimbabwe’s reengagement policy falter, while consolidating its grip on the country.
“The ‘wisdom and capabilities to address well these challenges’ in my view, is very much embedded in the conception of international relations that China has promoted, that is China is a rising power but a responsible one and will not use force or abuse its power to interfere in internal processes,” Mhandara said.
“This is an indirect jibe to western particularism and intrusive policies coming against the background that Zimbabwe is battleground in its power games with the west.
So the Chinese are saying, you have the leeway to choose what you want to do with your problems but be wise (choose us not the West).
The statement has a direct connotation that is intended to psychologically disarm the government of Zimbabwe in a manner that predetermines/ conditions/constrain its foreign policy choices vis-à-vis solutions to its external challenges.” China’s interests in Zimbabwe include mining, energy, construction and agriculture.
Mnangagwa’s government is battling a floundering economy, rising political tension, rolling power cuts and food insecurity triggered by last year’s drought.
Arthur Chikerema, Midlands State University political science lecturer, said following a series of policy pronouncements that have unnerved investors such as the unexpected reintroduction of the Zimbabwe dollar in June last year, the Chinese could be pushing for policy certainty in Zimbabwe.
Official figures show that foreign investors have been deserting the Zimbabwe Stock Exchange citing bottlenecks in repatriating their dividends.
“The Chinese are Zimbabwe’s all-weather friend but they are also skeptical to invest in an unstable politically and economically volatile environment and that’s why they do not make significant investments in Zimbabwe,” Chikerema said.
“They want to make sure that their investment is secure and safe. In other words, they are advocating for the reform of the political economy and this can only be done if Zimbabweans make their political fundamentals correct.”
While Mnangagwa is the custodian of Zimbabwe’s foreign policy, Finance minister Mthuli Ncube and Foreign Affairs minister Sibusiso Moyo have been the main protagonists in implementing the reengagement policy.
Ncube wants Zimbabwe to restore relations with multilateral financial institutions such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and the African Development Bank— all of which are influenced by Washington which has the largest shareholding. It appears there are crosswires here.
On the other hand, Moyo has been cementing military cooperation with allies such as China and Russia, much to the disdain of the US.
Normalising relations with the world’s largest economy could leave China in the cold as the two heavyweights expand their influence in Africa.
While it is a cliché that in politics there are no permanent friends or enemies but interest, Zimbabwe, which finds itself in an invidious position should play its cards right as it pursues its development agenda.
There is no morality in foreign policy. In November, China rebuked Zimbabwe after Harare understated Beijing’s role in Zimbabwe.
Critics contend that China took this position because it felt that Ncube had deliberately downplayed the role played by Asian powerhouse to appease the West. Left with egg on her face, Zimbabwe made a retraction.