HONG KONG — Beijing has suffered a severe setback in Africa, where its standing is normally high, at a time when its image is taking a beating in the West, largely as a result of events in Tibet and the journey of the Olympic Torch around the world.
China has enjoyed much support in Africa in large part because it refuses to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries, such as attaching conditions while doing business or extending aid. Western countries, on the contrary, often attach conditions to loans in an attempt to improve human rights.
But recent events suggest that some African countries are taking a new look at China and its policy of ignoring human rights violations and crackdowns on opposition politicians.
Last month, for example, a shipload of Chinese weapons bound for landlocked Zimbabwe, which is in the midst of a political crisis, was blocked by Zimbabwe’s neighbors. They would not allow the freighter An Yue Jiang to unload its cargo.
Zimbabwe, which has an annual inflation rate of 100,000 percent, has been in crisis mode for weeks. A presidential election was held March 29, but no results were announced for over a month, leading the opposition Movement for Democratic Change to claim that its candidate, Morgan Tsvangirai, had won.
But the Election Commission announced May 2 that the incumbent Robert Mugabe had won 43.2 percent of the vote against Tsvangirai’s 47.9 percent, with 8.9 percent going to independent Simba Makoni. It called for a runoff, which many fear would be rigged by Mugabe, who has led the country since independence in 1980.
There are reports of people being tortured, abducted and murdered in a campaign of retribution against opposition supporters. Into this tinderbox, the Chinese freighter was going to dump 3 million rounds of ammunition, 1,500 rocket-propelled grenades and thousands of mortar rounds and mortar tubes.
Interestingly, the blockage of the An Yue Jiang, dubbed the “Ship of Shame” by some in the media, was the result of a combination of nongovernmental as well as governmental actions.
When the ship first anchored outside Durban on April 17, the South African government refused to act. However, dockers refused to unload the ship. Randall Howard, of the Transport and Allied Workers Union, said the union “does not agree with the position of the government not to intervene with this shipment of weapons.” A court order was obtained preventing the ship’s cargo from being sent overland to Zimbabwe.
The ship then headed for Walvis Bay, but Namibia, where protesters demonstrated outside the Chinese Embassy, denied it permission to dock.
President Levy Mwanawasa of Zambia, who is the head of the 14-nation Southern African Development Community, called on leaders in the region not to allow the cargo to be delivered. Mozambique also denied the ship unloading facilities.
Angola, whose government is normally close to Mugabe, let the ship unload other cargo but not the arms bound for Zimbabwe. Frustrated, Cosco, the ship’s owners, apparently decided to recall the An Yue Jiang to China.
China’s Foreign Ministry defended the shipment as “normal military product trade between the two countries.”
Hopefully, this experience will cause China to ponder its arms sales to unstable Third World countries, where the weapons may be used against protesters or members of the opposition.
This experience also puts the doctrine of noninterference in internal affairs in a new light. If a regional organization, such as the South African Development Community, decides that weapons should not be sold to one of its members, is it right for an outside country such as China to defy the community?
While China can argue that what goes on in Zimbabwe is that country’s internal affairs, cannot the SADC take the position that what goes on in southern Africa is its internal affair, and that no country outside the region, including China, should interfere?
At the very least, China will in the future have to take into account the reaction of neighboring countries when it is thinking of selling arms to a country.
We may not have heard the last of the An Yue Jiang and its shipment. Lawyers from the East Africa Law Society and the Law Society of the Southern Africa Development Community are seeking to take legal action against the Chinese government over arms sales to Zimbabwe before the International Criminal Court. China, though, does not accept the jurisdiction of the court.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator (Frank.firstname.lastname@example.org)