Never mind the crocodile: the dragon is now the power in Zimbabwe
Robert Mugabe is probably not a man much amused by historical irony. That’s a shame because if he was he might appreciate the various mirror images between his enforced retirement and the downfall of the Nawab Siraj-ud-daulah of Bengal in 1757. The Nawab – at 24, nearly seven decades younger than Mugabe – was deposed by the East India Company after it bribed his commander with the offer of the crown provided he betray his prince at the Battle of Plassey, which he duly did. That action laid the foundation stone of the British Empire in India. Mugabe, by contrast, led Zimbabwe into independence and in so doing, set the sun on the last large piece of territory in the Empire.
However, what goes around, comes around. 37 years after closing the door on one empire, his downfall might well mark the point at which another finally broke cover.
The British press have naturally been fairly quiet on this point. Mugabe has for years been a comedy villain for them (comedy being easier when it’s 5000 miles away) and Mugabe was happy to keep revisiting alleged British interference for domestic purposes. It’s all refighting imaginary battles from a vanished world order – as is the question of Zimbabwe’s status in the Commonwealth: who cares?
These echoes of the past have distracted from the actions of the present. The most telling feature of the Zimbabwe coup was that it was clearly green-lit by China. As in Bengal 260 years ago, the subordinate assumed the crown on the overthrow of the former leader backed by the shift in allegiance of the army and undoubtedly with the approval if not outright connivance of the great power.* Gen Chiwenga, the commander of the Zimbabwean army, was in China only a week before the coup. It’s inconceivable that he didn’t discuss it while there, not least because it’s equally inconceivable that it would have gone ahead had China been opposed.
The simple reason why China has an interest is money. China is Zimbabwe’s biggest foreign investor and its key supplier of military equipment. It has an interest in the political stability and economic welfare of the country (note – that means it doesn’t have an interest in democracy). Neither of these were being served by Mugabe. Can we know for certain that it wasn’t a purely domestic matter? No, and to be fair, the timing may have been forced given what looked like an incipient purge from the Mugabes of their opponents but all the same, the meshing of interests is clear.
Nor is Chinese investment limited to just Zimbabwe. In 2015, China had 107 companies operating in Zimbabwe, which meant it didn’t even make it into the ten most active trade partnerships (Nigeria, with 334, was top, followed by South Africa on 229 and Zambia on 213). Overall, China is now Africa’s largest trading partner. It’s also a key supplier of low-interest finance for infrastructure investment. With money comes power, as Britain well knew.
And the flip side is that the trade and investment is at a level which forces China to take an interest in the domestic stability of these countries. The goods it’s buying – raw materials, above all – are essential to its economy. Africa is the second-largest regional supplier of oil to China, after the Middle East, for example. As with all great global trading powers, particularly those with large and growing overseas investments, core national interests demand open and reliable sea lanes, reliable partner regimes and overseas military bases to protect not only its economic interests but also its people (there are now more than a million Chinese in Africa). It is not that China is actively seeking a scramble for Africa – on the contrary, it’s been remarkably tentative about using its power – it’s that the outcome is an almost inevitable consequence of having grown as it has.
The true mark of a superpower is the ability to act contrary to the world’s norms, with impunity, providing that the action does not cross the essential national interests of another superpower. The US and Soviet Union used to sponsor regime change and before them, the European powers did likewise when they didn’t take a more direct interest. Nawab Siraj wasn’t the first and certainly wasn’t the last to suffer at the hand of proxies.
Why does this matter now? Because it’s symptomatic of the West’s weakness and lack of strategic capability. The foreign policy of the US is a scream in a vacuum and that of the European powers is introspective and ineffective. While Britain struggles through Brexit with the hope of global trade deals, China simply gets on with it. But then China has the financial and diplomatic muscle to be able to build its new order.
* There are obviously some differences too: Zimbabwe’s transfer of power was bloodless, including – so far – Mugabe himself; also, the army was a more direct actor this time. All the same, the parallels are striking.