Zimbabwe’s ”look east” policy: a poisoned chalice?

Dot Keet on perspectives for African engagement with China
08 December 2009
In the media

China, as one of the world’s fastest growing economies, has a voracious appetite for Africa’s vast and in some cases, untapped natural resources.

With an economy growing at an average annual rate of  around  10% in recent years,China is undoubtedly a global economic tiger.China is  experiencing an impressive economic boom virtually unparalled in the past two or so decades.

The increasing role that is being played by China in the global economy cannot, therefore,  be ignored.The main purpose of this paper is to interrogate the economic relations between China and Zimbabwe firstly in a bilateral context and also in a generalised Sino-African context.Going forward, the fourth Forum for China -Africa Co-operation ( FOCAC) that was held at the Egyptian resort town of Sharm El’ Shaik in November , 2009 set the tone for China’s desire to structure and outline its foreign and indeed,economic policy, in Africa.The need to foster and stimulate greater South-South co-operation through more integrated trade and investment synergies and linkages was emphasised.Because of the abundance of natural resources such as minerals and oil on the African continent, China is taking its economic relations with Africa very seriously.China, as one of the world’s fastest growing economies, has a voracious appetite for Africa’s vast and in some cases, untapped natural resources.The first FOCAC summit was held in Beijing in 2000, followed with the second summit in Addis Ababa in 2003 and the  third summit in Beijing in 2006.

Africa has not been spared from the effects of the global economic crisis.Although Zimbabwe’s economy, for the past decade or so, has been largely de-linked from the global economy, it will be folly for anyone to think that Zimbabwe has nothing to lose from the global economic recession.Weak and decimated as the Zimbabwean economy might be today, it is not a secret that Zimbabwe possesses tremendous economic potential.Infact,Zimbabwe is a sleeping economic giant.As soon as we emerge from the politics of autocracy,repression and kleptocracy,Zimbabwe will be a resurgent economic giant in Sub-Saharan Africa, second,perhaps, only to South Africa.Zimbabwe is well-endowed with virtually every strategic mineral resource known to mankind; most of which is yet to be exploited.

China is acutely aware of Zimbabwe’s strategic position as a sleeping economic giant with vast mineral and other natural resources.China has become the third largest commercial partner in Africa after the USA and France.There are about 450 Chinese-owned investment projects in Africa; most of  it resource extraction.Since the inception of the first FOCAC summit in 2000, the trade relationship between China and Africa has increased from US$10,5 billion to US$106  billion in 2008.

Zimbabwe has to learn to re-direct her development trajectory to make her economic revival more enduring and sustainable.Gone should be the days of sloganeering and hate-mongering.This world is getting smaller and smaller and if Zimbabwe is not careful, she will very soon be squeezed out. China means business in Africa; the Chinese are not here to sloganeer and reminisce about the good old days of the liberation struggles that were waged on the African continent in the sixties and the seventies.China is in Africa to benefit from the vast natural resources that are necessary to fuel the Chinese economic boom.Sino-African relations can be traced back to the 1960s during the Cold War when China provided military and ideological support to Africa’s liberation struggles, particularly in Southern Africa.In the 1980s, China adopted economic reforms that saw its economy increasingly becoming market driven.Of course, there was always the trappings of socialist rhetoric but this paper boldly adopts the view that modern day China is a capitalist nation; the main distinction from the West being that the vast majority of Chinese companies that play a major role in the global economy are State-owned corporations.But these State-owned Chinese corporations are fiercely capitalistic in both their mode of production and marketing.They are first and foremost, profit-driven.

The clarion call for Zimbabwe and indeed, for the rest of the African continent, should be to seek to develop and sustain a win-win economic relationship with China.And to be able to do this Africa should work out a continental or at the very least, sub-regional masterplan of how Africa should economically engage with China.There are absolutely no meaningfull benefits to be derived by Africa if small and weak African nations continue to enter into fragmented and unco-ordinated bilateral economic contracts with China.Do I hear someone shouting that African countries, because they are sovereign nations, should do what they want with whomsoever they want on a bilateral basis? This paper doesnot seek to bastardise the noble principle of state sovereignity.If anything, it is the writer’s argument that African countries can strengthen their sovereign status by engaging in well co-ordinated and regionally integrated economic ties not only with China, but indeed, with all the major economic powers of the world; both in the West and in the East.Thus, although the writer has particularly no qualms about the much talked about ” Look East” policy; he has serious reservations about continuing to look east without also looking west, north and south.At any rate, if you continue going East, you will inevitably come to the West.Because the East and the West are now two sides of the same coin.

The writer attended the Chinese Development Assistance in Southern Africa Regional stakeholder workshop that was held in Maputo, Mozambique, on 30 November, 2009.This workshop was very ably put together by AFRODAD ( African Forum and Network on Debt and Development) in conjunction with SAPSN ( Southern African People’s Solidarity Network).Notable amongst the presenters at this workshop was a celebrated citizen of SADC and renowned academic, Dot Keet.She presented an insightful paper entitled ” Perspectives for African Engagement with China”. This was a thought-provoking paper that really interrogated the myth behind Sino-African relationships.Keet was not flattering in her condemnation of the one-size-fits-all approach that is normally adopted by Western institutions such as the World Bank and the Bretton Woods institutions in their dealings with  developing countries; particularly in Africa.She was also not flattering when she boldly stated that African countries should be very careful and cautious when they enter into economic and financial agreements with China.For obvious reasons, China would like to portray herself as Africa’s ” all weather friend”.

Naturally, African dictators are very keen to enter into economic relations with China mainly because China is hardly bothered about issues of governance, environmental sustainability and human rights.These African dictators will tell you that aid from China is always without any strings attached.They are, of course, not telling the truth.In this world that we live in as mere mortals, nothing is for free and no aid is without any strings attached.

China has a very strategic economic agenda in Africa.She needs to acquire resources needed for continued industrialisation and economic growth as well as to find access to new markets for cheap consumer products produced in China.

If Africa fails to develop her own strategic economic agenda with the Chinese, the African continent will remain just as a huge market for cheap imports from China whilst Africa’ s vast natural resources will continue to be plundered by the new capitalists from the East.Is China really Africa’s ” all weather friend” ? Certainly not! Is Zimbabwe ’s much talked about ” Look East” policy the panacea to our socio-economic trepidation? The writer is unable to agree.

Copyright The Zimbabwe Telegraph