The Mark of the Dragon: China in Zimbabwe…and Angola, Namibia, Zambia and Malawi

There remains an uneasiness among those of us who have remained as close as is humanly possible to the movement of the An Yue Jiang with its shipment of weapons from China to Zimbabwe. Uneasiness, that stems from the extent of Chinese involvement in the SADC countries, and the fact that most of these countries are unofficially ‘Chinese Colonies’.

Methinks we have lost the plot. We keep looking to the African countries surrounding Zimbabwe for a solution. We look at Namibia, Angola, Zambia and Malawi to stop the weapons, mostly because these countries have proclaimed themselves as democratic states and have said that they are eager for peace in the region. But in Africa, saying and doing are two very different things and everybody seems to forget that these very countries are deeply – perhaps even too deeply – involved with the arms shipment’s country of origin to be in a position to do anything except obey the will of their master.

We chide China for their irresponsibility. A small rap over the knuckles, no more. And China, with an eye on the upcoming Olympics, plays the role of the reprimanded gracefully – withdrawing the errant ship, or at least pretends to do so.

They are smiling to themselves, I am sure. Not in embarrassment, but in glee. The West is wrong – again.

China: Africa’s New Partner
You see, China was busy with other things while the rest of the world was busying them with the Middle East and with Eastern Europe. China found somebody to play their own brand of Monopoly with: Africa. And true war masters that they are, the Chinese had their strategy in place long before joining the game. In true Sun Tzu style, they chose each of their battlegrounds with care and won each piece of additional territory without a single shot being fired.

The countries they targeted were easy marks. They were all dead broke, run by kleptocrats (to varying degrees) and heavily indebted to the IMF. The terms imposed by the IMF did not necessarily suit their peculiar brands of democracy. And, considering from whence the IMF funding comes, the terms of these loans have instilled growing resentment towards the haves of the ‘imperialistic’ West.

Hence, when the Chinese arrived on their white dragons, bearing millions upon millions of Dollars in gifts, loans and advances, (initially no strings attached) they were received like long lost brothers – liberators from their imaginary foe, the West. But money, like any other opiate, could be addictive – and, as has been proven time and again, the addicted ends up becoming the lackey of the supplier. In Africa, the extent of the submission depends on the extent of the addiction.

Money is Sun Tzu’s golden thread in this instance: the thing that unites the senseless gluttony of these African leaders and the Chinese hunger for territory, commodities and power.

Want to know why I am uneasy about Angola? Read on.

China: The Angolan Puppeteer
trenched itself in Angola. The CSIS, in their recent report on the Angola China relations, tried to provide a (too) balanced view of the involvement of the Chinese in this country, with China’s involvement made out to be benevolence in exchange for crude oil. Now, I would call China many things, but benevolent isn’t one of these. They have been putting money into Angola, and they want something in return. Full stop. There is no such thing as free Chop Suey.

In addition to oil (Angola is the largest supplier of crude to China – 8.48 million metric tons in the first three months of this year alone), there are diamonds. And, in addition to diamonds there is employment for Chinese nationals. In a country that sports a ginormous unemployment figure, the number of Chinese nationals employed in Angola has increased from 192 in 2004 to 22,043 in 2007. 22,043 jobs that could have moved Angolan nationals from below the breadline to above it – jobs that are filled by people who cannot string two words in Portuguese together, and nearly as little in English. Get the picture?

Vast sums of money have been made available to Angola by the Chinese. Very little has filtered down towards improving conditions for the person on the street. Scholarships to China were donated to ‘enhance Angolan skills’. These only served to enhance the family members of parliamentarians’ skills.

The desire for arms and weapons (Chinese supplied of course) supersede the need of the populace for food. The need to reconstruct the railway between Benguela and Luanda (with Chinese money for Chinese ends) is greater than the need of the population for shelter, basic healthcare and education.

The Dos Santos regime is nominally democratic and but a small margin away from being a one party state. In fact, he could be a Mugabe understudy.

And China? Well, China has proven time and again that they do not particularly care about the fabric of a country’s leadership. The more corrupt the easier it is for them to get around. And, as usual they have no qualms about propping up a dictator as long as he is willing to dance under the big red puppeteer’s skilful hands.

In Closing

So, will Eduardo dos Santos really only allow construction material to be off-loaded? If construction material is indeed part of the cargo carried by the An Yue Jiang…

With things being as they are – and I do hope I am wrong – I would be pleasantly surprised if the alleged construction material does not pan out to be destruction material in the end.

New Destination of Zimbabwe Arms Ship: Angola

Is this a Red Herring or not?
According to the South African Department of Transport, the An Yue Jiang is not going to Mozambique, but to Angola. So, either the Angolans have decided to purchase the arms from the Chinese OR they have decided to assist with the delivery of the arms.

Angola, which is run by an old freedom fighting ally of Mugabe, José Eduardo dos Santos (MPLA), is very likely to allow the weapons and arms to be off-loaded. There are effectively two ways that the arms can be taken into Zimbabwe: Ground and Air

Ground
Once the arms are on terra firma, the logistics of moving the weapons – by road or rail – to Zimbabwe from Angola, which is located on the west coast of Africa, becomes a veritable nightmare. Of all Angola’s neighbours (the Republic of the Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Namibia, Botswana and Zambia) only Botswana, Namibia and Zambia can provide ground access for the arms shipment to reach Zimbabwe. However, the likelihood of either one of these countries granting permission is smaller than small. In addition, the roads and the railways running through Angola are by and large destroyed and the terrain extremely rough.

So, ground simply makes no sense at all.

Air
This is probably the most feasible option – albeit still a territorial infringement. Angola can use on of their state-owned airways or their military aircraft to rapidly move the arms directly to Zimbabwe. The aircraft need not cross the expanse of either Zambian or Namibian (who may retaliate) airspace.

1) They could fly to the southern Angolan border and then turn due east, heading towards the border shared between Namibia and Zambia.
2) The aircraft can then cover the short distance by moving between Zambian and Namibian airspace. This will make retaliation difficult because Namibia cannot shoot at aircraft in Zambian airspace and vice versa.
3) There will probably not be time to retaliate either. The distances from the air force bases to that particular border are vast. Once they become aware of the problem, the aircraft will be safely in Zimbabwean airspace already.

What are the options?
The SALC: The SALC can try to seek remedy from the Angolan courts. The chances of succeeding are minute. The country is fairly corrupt (in my ever-present opinion) and the government kleptocratic.
The Mbeki factor: Mbeki could exert diplomatic pressure on Dos Santos, but considering that he has yet to be seen to exert pressure on any of his former freedom fighting cronies, this could be a cold day in hell.
International pressure: Angola is an OPEC member and a beneficiary of World Bank and IMF funding. Both institutions could use this to stop Angola from allowing the weapons to be transported through the country. The World Bank and the IMF may however feel that it is neither ethical nor appropriate to hold a sovereign country hostage in this way.
Zambia and Namibia: These two countries should call Angola’s bluff: They need to proactively engage with Angola and tell them to keep clear of their air space. They should also illustrate their air presence in the area just to be sure. Not sure that they will do this though….

Red Herring or Not?
Having developed mistrust in what is being said by certain South African dignitaries (Department of Transport representatives included); the whole Angola story has a 50% chance of being fact and a 50% chance of being fiction.

So, those interested in spotting the errant ship, should keep an eagle’s eye on both the Angolan and Mozambique harbours.