Look East’ not policy but a slogan

Dumisani Muleya/Shakeman Mugari


CHINA’S recent delivery of two MA60 passenger planes, six fighter/trainer jets and reportedly sophisticated jamming and snooping equipment to the Central Intelligence Organisation appears to have given President Robert Mugabe’s

“Look East” policy a dramatic impetus against a background of Harare’s damaging isolation from the West.

Following the recent Asia-Africa summit in Jakarta, Indonesia, attended by key leaders from the two regions, including Mugabe and President Thabo Mbeki, co-host with Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri, Mugabe has escalated his rhetoric about his new “policy” to circumvent isolation over political repression and human rights issues.

Analysts say Mugabe wants to capitalise on China’s rising position as a global economic powerhouse to integrate Zimbabwe’s collapsing economy into the “Asian Tigers” and thereby redefine the country’s economic thrust in line with his political designs.

But observers say while Mugabe’s bid to explore new economic horizons and develop alternative economic ties on the face of it sound innovative, a rhetoric/reality gap is evoked in a way that conflates populism and principle.

Analysts say the worry about the “Look East” policy is that it is not a policy at all. They say it is more of a political slogan stemming from Mugabe’s problems with the West.

Former Information minister Jonathan Moyo, a political scientist and independent MP, said the “Look East” mantra was not a policy by “any stretch of the imagination”.

“I’m not sure whether it is fair to ask me to comment on a policy which doesn’t exist. I don’t think there is any serious student of politics and policy studies, let alone policy-makers, who think there is such a policy,” Moyo said.

“There is no such a policy. It’s a political slogan. It’s typical of the Zanu PF leadership to parade slogans as policies.
 
The ‘Look East’ slogan lacks substance and that’s why it was so embarrassing to see the president and government officials wildly excited because of only two aircraft bought from China by Air Zimbabwe.”

Moyo said buying planes and getting a few trinkets from China could not be reason enough for serious policy analysts to jump to conclusions claiming there was now a policy of “only looking east in a modern, global world that requires people to be open-minded and to interrelate in various ways extensively.

“Kwame Nkrumah who lived in a different era was wise enough to realise that the idea is not to look east or west but forward. That’s what we need to do,” Moyo said.

“Mugabe’s metaphor that we are now looking east where the sun rises and not west where the sun sets is too simplistic to inform the thinking needed to resolve our economic crisis. It is certainly not as profound as he wants us to believe. At best it is unsophisticated and naïve and at worst dangerous insofar as it seeks to camouflage reality.”

However, economic commentator Jonathan Kadzura defended the “Look East” policy. “It is a noble policy and we must not just look at the negatives but concentrate on the positive side of it,” Kadzura said. “Already there is a lot that has come from the Chinese. Look at their deals with Net*One, NRZ and Hwange. Surely those are the benefits we are looking for.”

But John Robertson, an independent economic consultant, disagreed.

“There is nothing in the east that could replace what we have been getting from the west. ‘Look East’ doesn’t represent a policy at all,” he said.

“There is need for urgent balance-of-payments support and lines of credit and I don’t think there are institutions in the east that can give us that now and replace the west.”

Analysts say there is currently no established framework for Zimbabwe’s economic integration with Asian countries except ad hoc measures largely dictated by Mugabe’s whims instead of economic realities.

The other problem — perhaps a very serious one — is that Mugabe is unable to draw the line between his revolutionary or radical public posturing and reality, analysts say.

While it is a good idea to widen economic opportunities for the country, prevailing economic practicalities in the local and global context should always be the guiding principle.

Critics say it is no use trying to persist with a dreadful charade in the hope that the reality will vanish and be replaced by wishful thinking.

The reality is Zimbabwe inherited a set of international economic and political relations which still and, in all probability, will continue to heavily influence the country’s future.

Political relations are dominated and defined by intergovernmental links and are easy to refashion to suit the political agenda of a regime in power.

However, economic relations are forged by a combination of complex historical circumstances and network of factors such as financial and commercial linkages, international markets, commodity regimes, trade treaties, and lines of communication such as transport routes and other variables like public and private sector arrangements, production patterns, import necessities and export opportunities.

International economic relations are far less responsive to government intervention short of diktat and will almost inevitably remain at variance with the pattern of political relations and alliances of a regime with upside-down priorities.

The reality of the Zimbabwean economy is that it is dominated by British, South African and American companies which hold sway across a vast swathe in nearly all key sectors.

“The poverty of this shallow ‘Look East’ policy is it ignores the fact that economic realities shape political relations and not the other way round,” Moyo said. “Trade policy is fashioned out of a country’s comparative advantages and not political paranoia or prejudices.”

“Countries have permanent economic interests and not permanent friends and enemies. The ‘Look East’ slogan flies in the face of this fundamental rationale.”

Moyo said the Zanu PF catchphrase cloaked as policy was exposing the ignorance of its purveyors and turning Zimbabwe into a laughing stock.

“It is exposing Zimbabwe to ridicule by informed people who know how modern economies work because in essence it is a discredited paradigm and a disguised Cold War philosophy which went down with the collapse of the Berlin Wall,” he said. “We need to come to terms with the fact we are a modern country in a globalised world that requires a critical shift from redundant mindsets. That is why many people say we won’t get out of this situation while the out-of-touch Zanu PF old guard is in office.”

Analysts say while China has investments in Zimbabwe and there is significant trade between Zimbabwe and Asian countries, these pale in comparison to links with the West.

The inevitability of a clash between the political desires of the government and economic interests of the country in most developing countries with a colonial past, analysts say, easily deteriorates into a crisis if there is an unpopular and ostracised populist regime struggling for political survival.

Populist regimes always try to arouse and exploit the sensitivities of the people in the name of justice and economic equality. They are generally transformist and revolutionary in origin and come up with programmes directed at the political and socio-economic status quo, foreign powers, and at times the so-called “Yankee imperialism” led by multinationals. Zimbabwe is a case in point.

This is what Mugabe has been trying to do for the past five years. But it is clear his actions are motivated less by his desire to help the people than self-preservation, which is why he has largely failed in this mission. Zhing-zhong is no substitute for balance-of-payments support.