What alarms the world is the growing number of Chinese settlers in Africa and reported landing of troops in Zimbabwe.


As per latest trade figures, China-Africa trade is worth approximately $220 billion, and it is the fastest growing trade in the world. It should come as no surprise. But what surprises the world in the present context is that China is using Africa as its strategic outpost. While it not only sources rare earth materials, hydrocarbon etc., in return it builds infrastructure and transports Thai rice. Now China has also established its military outpost in Djibouti for the purpose of surveillance across the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait in the Gulf of Aden. What alarms the world is the growing number of Chinese settlers in Africa and the reported landing of troops in Zimbabwe.

On 14 November 2017, the Zimbabwe Defence Forces took control of the Broadcasting Corporation and after much suspense to the world announced 24 hours later that it wasn’t a coup d’etat. The 93-year-old President Robert Mugabe was reported to be safe, which was also confirmed by President of South Africa Jacob Zuma. The tensions were simmering for some time with economic decline and social instability. ZDF promised to deal with the people responsible for the socio-economic decline and said it would hand over power to the civilian government later.

This was preceded by tensions in the ruling ZANU-PF party on the issue of Robert Mugabe’s successor. Vice President Emerson Mnangagwa and First Lady Grace Mugabe were at loggerheads, leading to the exit of the Vice President, who had to flee to exile. Within a week, the chief of Zimbabwe Defence Forces, General Constantino, said that senior party leaders, like the expelled Vice President, had to stop and soon thereafter troops moved in to official spaces and residents.

It is pertinent to recall that a strong China-Zimbabwe relationship had developed after the US and EU imposed sanctions post Zimbabwe’s elections in 2002. China stepped up its trade activity and military support to the ruling party despite their poor human rights record. China invested in over 100 projects. President Xi Jinping went to the extent of promising investments of up to $5 billion, calling Zimbabwe an “all weather friend”.

When the political crisis was brewing in Zimbabwe, Professor Wang Xinsong, a specialist in International Development at the Beijing Normal University School of Social Development and Public Policy, mentioned that China was monitoring the infighting in the Mugabe regime and the country’s faltering economy for some time and weighing its options. Zimbabwe’s indigenisation law, which effectively meant major government control of most foreign owned businesses and companies, many of them Chinese, alarmed Beijing. “China’s political and economic stake in Zimbabwe was high enough to demand a close watch on the developments” Wang wrote in a commentary. His prediction was that China would stick with the ruling ZANU-PF party, but would not tolerate political and economic instability for long.

China is Zimbabwe’s fourth largest trading partner and its largest source of investment worth many billions of pounds in every sector, from agriculture to infrastructure. China is also the largest market for Zimbabwe’s exports.

With Zimbabwe’s “look east” policy, its military ties had deepened. China supplied it with Hongdu JL 8 jet aircraft, JF 17 fighters, vehicles, radars and other weapons. However, a controversy regarding the shipment of arms in 2008 led to China restricting Zimbabwe at “limited level” military trading. China financed and built the National Defence Academy in Zimbabwe. The PLA and ZDF have been in regular touch through military training and contacts amongst the two military hierarchies.

The chief of ZDF, General Constantino Chiwenga paid a visit to Beijing in early November, about the time when Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa was unceremoniously dismissed by President Mugabe. On his return on 13 November, Chiwenga issued a statement demanding President Mugabe stop his purge of senior party leaders. Two days later the military took control of the government and insisted it wasn’t a coup. The ZDF chief’s visit to China hasn’t gone unnoticed. China was the first to recognise the new dispensation in Zimbabwe. Soon thereafter, the ZDF chief, Constantino Chiwenga retired and was appointed Vice President by Emmerson Mnangagwa. He has been suitably rewarded and China’s interests have been taken care of.

The overriding goal of China’s grand strategy is to restore itself as a great power, for which it has taken a three-pronged approach. First, by 2021 China seeks to achieve a GDP of $12 trillion and become a “moderately prosperous society”. Second, it intends to become a “world class power” by 2049, which coincides with the centenary of the founding of the CPC. Thirdly, China seeks to build on and expand its financial and military reach well beyond its borders through increased investment by public and private entities. Trade security is to be ensured by military bases in every continent and the Border Road Initiative (BRI) initiative is central to achieving this aim. This could strengthen infrastructure, trade and development links between China, Africa, Europe and the Gulf.

China finds Africa playing a key role in accomplishing these goals. Africa is an emerging market with high dividends, but associated with high risks. China’s soft power push in Africa since year 2000 has led to an increasing number of scholarships to African mid and senior government officials. The senior lot is trained in Beijing, while the middle and junior level officers are trained in provincial and local party offices. This training essentially covers theory and practice of party building, cadre training and management of interactions amongst the party, government and the military. Field visits are included to gain firsthand knowledge of how the party solves local problems. Such trainings have resulted in some African countries making changes in their styles of governance. This is very evident in Eritrea, Namibia, Rwanda, South Sudan and Sudan. The supremacy of party over government and the military being an extension of the party and subordinate to its structures are cardinal features of the Chinese system, now spreading into Africa.

China’s presence in Africa intensified after the United States and European Union lost their interest in the continent around 2005. Now Africa serves as a Chinese outreach for ensuring energy security in the Sea lines of communication (SLOCS) emanating from Latin America and African ports. China has established big power equation with the United States with its economic and military influence in these parts of the world. China does not seem to be inclined towards multipolarity, post US symptoms of withdrawal, but establish a bipolar system (possibly along with Russia) using single party socialistic imperialism as a model of governance. The primary challenge to China is from Japan, which has introduced “quality growth, which is inclusive, sustainable and resilient. It also provides for human security by capacity building focusing on individuals in Africa.” Japan’s assistance in the fields of education, health, water and sanitation has been remarkable. Afro-Japanese diplomatic engagement has intensified in recent times, which is aimed at seeking African Union support (53 countries) for reforms of UNSC; seeking to include G-4 democracies, i.e. Japan, Germany, Brazil and India. These attempts will be resisted by China at all levels, but may just ensure that multipolarity survives. The news of the yuan becoming legal tender in Zimbabwe is possibly the beginning of Sinofication of Africa.

Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha, former Chief of Integrated Defence Staff, Commander in Chief, Western Naval Command, is Member, Board of Trustees, India Foundation and The Sunday Guardian Foundation.


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