Looking East in earnest: The evolution of Zimbabwe and China’s relationship

31st August 2010 By: In On Africa IOA

Zimbabwe and China held the eighth session of the Zimbabwe-China Joint Permanent Commission in July 2010. The session ended with both countries pledging to widen and deepen economic cooperation.(2) After the session, Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe was eager to reaffirm to the media his commitment to the ‘Look East Policy' first announced in 2003. Mugabe is tirelessly vocal regarding his relationship with China as being fruitful and beneficial to Zimbabwe. However, critics both inside and outside of Zimbabwe are doubtful of how much Zimbabwe has benefited from the alliance. This CAI brief examines the relationship between China and Zimbabwe to ascertain how Zimbabwe has benefited in the past and what the possibilities are for the future.

Struggle for independence

Zimbabwe and China's relationship dates back to the struggle for independence from Ian Smith's repressive white minority Government. Zimbabwe came into existence on 18 April 1980, following a long and brutal civil war for independence fought from 1964 until 1979. Under Ian Smith, Rhodesia was an unequal and discriminatory society, in which a white minority Government ruled over nearly four million black Rhodesians. The two opposition parties, Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) and the Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU), (formerly one party), consistently campaigned and fought against Ian Smith's Government. The military wings of each of the parties were the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA) and the Zimbabwe People's Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA) respectively. Whilst ZIPRA won the support of the Soviet Union, the ZANLA/ ZANU were able to find allies in the Chinese.

Chinese support to the struggle for independence arrived in the form of training, material and logistical support to the freedom fighters. The support was later to materialise into legitimate diplomatic relations once Zimbabwe was formed. In Mugabe's own views as expressed through The Herald, diplomatic relations between Zimbabwe and China were formally established on the day of independence. Two months later, Deputy Prime Minister of Zimbabwe Simon Muzenda travelled to Beijing to further cement the relationship by expressing gratitude for the support China offered throughout the struggle for independence.(3)

The 2008 elections...

Zimbabwe and China's diplomatic relations were useful to Mugabe and the ZANU-PF following the 2008 run-off elections. This was a crucial time during which Chinese and Zimbabwean relations were thrown into the spotlight. Whilst the United Nations (UN) was calling for a sanctions campaign against Zimbabwe after the internationally criticised elections, China refused to cooperate. The elections were widely condemned by international commentators, with reports of corruption and violent human rights abuses against the opposition and its supporters. However, whilst the UN, including the United States (US) and United Kingdom (UK) called for sanctions, the Chinese insisted on stability and negotiations between the Government and opposition. US Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice, had at the time publicly reached out to her Chinese counterpart to enforce sanctions. This was a direct recognition of China as a leading ally and trading partner of Zimbabwe.(4)

However, as David Kang points out, whilst Western nations may criticise Chinese for the strategic relationship, there is much that can be said of similar Western tactics. China may use arms sales and military relationships to gain important allies including Sudan, Zimbabwe, and Nigeria for its political goals, such as preventing Taiwanese independence and diverting attention from its own human rights record. Likewise, the US supports Pakistan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia - huge human rights violators - because of other strategic interests.(5) For this reason, whilst Zimbabwe and China may be chastised by the international community for their dubitable alliance, those chastising should arguably apply a blanket approach to all such relations. In this context, the Chinese and Zimbabwean example is being used to discourage behaviour by two Governments that the international community is apprehensive of. However, the alliance has paid off, in that throughout the period following the run-off elections, China saved Zimbabwe from the threat of UN sanctions, while encouraging negotiations with the opposition.

The Look East policy - a new dimension to relations

The Look East Policy was first initiated in 2003 following Zimbabwe's ill-fated land redistribution attempts and the West's reaction to this. The rationale behind the policy was that where the West implemented sanctions and offered conditional aid, the East would open up trade and investment. However, there has been real debate as to whether much has materialised in the form of benefits for Zimbabwe. Whilst China has access to natural resources, and is the largest importer of tobacco from Zimbabwe, to many there appears to be little in significant benefit to Zimbabwe. In 2009, China was Zimbabwe's fourth largest exporting partner with 7.82% of exports, behind the Democratic Republic of Congo (14.82%), South Africa (13.39%) and Botswana (13.23%).(6) Unfortunately Zimbabwe has been importing much more than it has been exporting. Imports have mostly included food, machinery, fertilisers, and general manufactured products, the two major suppliers being South Africa (40%) and China (4%).(7) In order for Sino-Zimbabwean relations to be beneficial to the latter, China needs to support Zimbabwe in improving its self-sufficiency in agriculture and its exporting capacity. This appears to be the shape that future cooperation will take.

During the July 2010 session held between Zimbabwe and China, the two countries discussed ways of enhancing various projects already being implemented, as well as possible new projects. Many of the projects are to be implemented as part of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). The sectors under discussion are wide and varied, including energy, agriculture, manufacturing, transport, tourism and water. It is claimed that Chinese President Hu Jintao, amongst other things, promised a US$ 950 million loan to support the country's economic recovery.(8) The economy has been in a prolonged economic recession and is struggling under a debt burden amounting to billions of US dollars.

Amongst other deals made was a widely reported deal for China to provide US$ 1.5 million to the China-Zimbabwe Friendship Hospital for medical equipment and drugs.(9) Other projects announced were in the education and agricultural sectors. Of significance is a US$ 200 million buyer's credit facility extended by the China Exim Bank for procurement of agricultural inputs to boost food production in Zimbabwe. Mugabe has long denounced Western countries for causing Zimbabwe to become a ‘bread basket' as it was widely cited. It was forced to import staple crops that it could have grown in surpluses and exported. Zimbabwe apparently has not had any grain reserves for more than a decade, since the eviction of white farmers.

There are other deals that if materialise, could have a considerably important impact on the Zimbabwean economy. A number of hydro, thermal, gas and solar power projects have been identified in Zimbabwe for investment by Chinese companies. The Government claims that these projects have capacity to contribute 3,100 megawatts to the national grid when completed. The expected output is more than the country's current national energy requirement of 2,100 MW.(10) This could transform the productivity of the economy, which currently suffers from frequent and prolonged blackouts. Access to electricity would also enhance the quality of life for a vast percentage of the population.


Throughout their relationship, Mugabe and his Government have been vocal on the topic of no-strings-attached Chinese support in comparison to conditional aid on offer by Western donors. Consistent praise has been lavished on China for setting a ‘shining example' to other world donors by honouring pledges. This could be a reference to an old grudge that Mugabe has borne against the British Government for not fulfilling what he felt was their duty to pay compensation for land redistribution.

Mugabe has also indicated satisfaction that there is an alternative to the ‘Bretton Woods prescription' to growth and development. Zimbabwe is apparently willing to learn from China's experience and expertise in the economic sphere, which has transformed the country into a global economic powerhouse.(11) His hope for the future can be seen in his recognition that with fast growing economies and a large population, the East translates into ‘big markets' for Zimbabwean products, primarily natural resources, including diamonds that ‘the West does not want us to sell'.(12)

Although in the past, the Look East Policy may not have borne as much economic benefit as the Zimbabwean Government has claimed, the current proposed deals with China could offer immense benefits to Zimbabwe. As mentioned, these are potentially benefits that promote economic recovery and improve the lives of many Zimbabweans. However, one factor that needs to be taken into account is the future longevity of the ZANU-PF. Although cosy with China, the ZAPU opposition party currently in power alongside ZANU-PF are less forthcoming with their praise for China.

Written by: Harvir Mattu (1)


(1) Contact Harvir Mattu through Consultancy Africa Intelligence's Asia Dimension Unit (asia.dimension@consultancyafrica.com).
(2) ‘Zimbabwe, China strengthen economic cooperation', People Daily Online, 8 June 2010, www.english.peopledaily.com.cn
(3) ‘Zimbabwe: Let's Look East in Earnest', The Herald, 4 June 2010, www.allafrica.com.
(4) ‘China rejects Zimbabwe sanctions', Aljazeera News, 30 June 2008 www.english.aljazeera.net.
(5) Hanson, S., ‘China, Africa and Oil', Council on Foreign Relations, 6 June 2010, www.cfr.org.
(6) Central Intelligence Agency, ‘The World Factbook: Zimbabwe' Zimbabwe' 1 August 2010, www.cia.gov.
(7) Bureau of Africa Affairs, US Department of State, ‘Background Note: Zimbabwe', 23 April 2010, www.state.gov.
(8) ‘Zimbabwe-China trade and economic relations expected to grow this year', The Herald, 19 March 2010, www.pambazuka.org.
(9) ‘Zimbabwe, China strengthen economic cooperation', People Daily Online, 8 June 2010, www.english.peopledaily.com.cn.
(10) ‘Zimbabwe, China strengthen economic cooperation', People Daily Online, 8 June 2010, www.english.peopledaily.com.cn.
(11) Ibid
(12) ‘Zimbabwe: Let's Look East in Earnest', The Herald, 4 June 2010, www.allafrica.com.