Trip lays bare realities of ‘Look East’ policy

Shakeman Mugari/Augustine Mukaro

PRESIDENT Robert Mugabe’s attempts to secure an urgent financial rescue package from China to save the economy from collapse have hit a brick-wall and he returned from a week-long state visit to that country almost empty-handed.

Mugabe, however, won China’s political support to veto a possible United Nations resolution condemning Zimbabwe’s Operation Murambatsvina.

Mugabe desperately needs Chinese support to counter the UN move. Analysts say Mugabe’s trip was successful from a political point of view but a failure from an economic standpoint. Politically, it was a success because China promised to block any UN resolution based on the report by United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan’s special envoy Anna Tibaijuka.

Besides political support, Mugabe did not get much from China. He signed more bilateral and preferential trade agreements with the Chinese government. He also got a paltry US$6 million for grain imports to avert looming starvation in the countryside.

An estimated six million people are understood to be in need of food aid throughout the country. Although this could be enough to feed the starving multitudes for about three months, it leaves Mugabe with nothing for fuel and power imports.

Zimbabwe also desperately needs money to pay its international debts, which have ballooned to more than US$4 billion.

Analysts expressed reservations about the trip, saying beyond the minor achievements of Mugabe’s much-publicised visit was a signal failure as he did not get the comprehensive rescue package he desperately wanted. The analysts say China’s support only offers a reprieve but does not solve the economic crisis. They say Zimbabwe’s fundamental problems of foreign currency and fuel shortages will remain despite China’s moral and diplomatic support.

China has shown that it is only interested in Zimbabwe in as far as it provides markets for its products but is not committed to giving the much needed balance-of-payments support, which Mugabe had hoped for.

Economic experts say China is not in the business of doling out largesse but creating markets for its products. That is a fundamental part of Chinese economic policies Mugabe and his ministers have failed to understand.

China’s diplomatic support will not settle Zimbabwe’s debt to the IMF and other international lenders.

The analysts say it will not help Zimbabwe win international friends the country desperately needs.

In the end, it’s back to the drawing board for Mugabe. If anything, Mugabe has taken the country backward by engaging in political bluster, attacking local and international leaders who have been pushing him to accept the need for a negotiated political settlement to Zimbabwe’s problems.

While Mugabe claims China is Zimbabwe’s “great friend”, the reality is that China has stronger economic and cultural ties with the West which it is consolidating at a time Zimbabwe is trying to go it alone.

Latest figures show that despite Mugabe’s boast about the “Look East” policy, Zimbabwe’s total trade with China is only US$264 million annually, an amount which can barely buy five months’ supply of fuel.

Co-operation agreements which parastatals signed with Chinese companies are similar to those signed last year. History shows that very few of these are followed up.

For instance, Zimbabwe has about 15 bilateral agreements with Malaysia but none of them have been implemented. The noise made about them and the travel expenses are not mirrored by investment flows.

In the past four years Zimbabwe has signed agreements with China, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam and Thailand. The benefits from these agreements have been negligible, if any.

Trade figures show that Zimbabwe’s economy is heavily inter-twined with the West that Mugabe resents with a passion simply because they have been critical of his political repression and economic mismanagement.

“China is an alternative market but certainly not the solution to our problems,” said an economist with a local bank.

“In a real sense our economy is heavily dependent on the West whom we are still doing business with despite government’s stance,” he said.

Buoyed by China’s warm reception and its effort to save Zimbabwe from UN sanctions, Mugabe went into overdrive, attacking his African friends calling for inter-party talks.

Political analysts say Mugabe’s statement was seen as a reaction to regional and international pressure for him to accept talks.

Rights activist Reginald Matchaba-Hove said Zimbabwe needed a political solution to deal with the economic crisis and end international isolation.

“What is required in Zimbabwe is a political solution that will result in the re-engagement of our traditional partners, particularly the West,” Matchaba-Hove said.

“Therefore dialogue with all local stakeholders should resume so that confidence can be built by investors.”

Opposition MDC president Morgan Tsvangirai described Mugabe’s tour as a worthless trip.

He said Mugabe’s begging spree in recent weeks would come to nothing unless there was dialogue for a lasting political solution to the crisis at home.