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The Active Pariah: Zimbabwe's 'Look East' Policy

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

In 2012, Foreign Policy and the Fund for Peace ranked Zimbabwe the fifth most likely country to fail -- putting it in greater danger than Afghanistan, Iraq and Haiti. World leaders frequently describe Zimbabwe under the leadership of President Robert Mugabe as a pariah state. The United States, the European Union and Australia have all imposed sanctions against the Zimbabwean government for not respecting democracy and human rights, and the United Nations has proposed sanctions against Zimbabwe repeatedly. The country has lost many of its onetime allies and has found itself shunned by many in the international community.

Despite all of these challenges, Zimbabwe has not collapsed, and Mugabe continues to maintain his grip on power. With elections expected during 2013, all indications suggest that Mugabe will run for re-election and win. How is a country whose government is seemingly so isolated from the rest of the world able not just to survive, but to prosper?

The fact is, Zimbabwe isn’t as isolated as it may seem. Yes, travel embargoes and asset freezes may keep prominent officials in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) political party from visiting the Netherlands or doing business in the United States, but those are not the only avenues for diplomatic engagement in the world. Mugabe and his allies have cultivated an alternative diplomatic alliance by presenting Zimbabwe as the victim of Western neocolonialism and economic exploitation. The leadership has developed a network of support that allows it to engage with the rest of the world. At the same time, Mugabe has offered his experience as a cautionary tale to his allies: Zimbabwe’s experience with the West is emblematic of the latter’s desire to recolonize the rest of the world, and Mugabe is a bulwark against such exploitation; therefore, supporting Zimbabwe is the same as rejecting Western exploitation and neocolonialism.

This approach feeds into Zimbabwe’s general foreign policy themes, which emphasize African empowerment and sovereignty, while also providing an additional impetus for non-Western states to ally themselves with Zimbabwe. Combined, the various elements form the basis of Zimbabwe’s “Look East” policy, which it has used to fight back against the pariah label by creating a new venue in which to exercise its foreign policy influence.

Shunned by the West

When Zimbabwe emerged as an independent, majority-ruled state in 1980, it quickly became an international darling. Despite his socialist rhetoric during the liberation campaigns, Mugabe proved himself to be a pragmatic policymaker who employed a number of strategies to boost economic development. Zimbabwe positioned itself at the frontline in the international struggle against apartheid in South Africa. The country established diplomatic relations with a broad range of states, and it took an active role in international organizations.

By the turn of the century, though, Zimbabwe’s reputation had taken many hits. Mugabe actively suppressed opposition political parties. He relied on a special North Korean-trained military squad to carry out attacks against his supposed political enemies in the Ndebele-speaking parts of the country. He and the ZANU-PF rigged elections and took steps to create an official one-party state. His government imprisoned and tortured its opponents. Corruption became endemic throughout the government. The economy experienced significant downturns, leading to large strikes and protests.

Most significantly, the government announced its intention to appropriate property from commercial farms, owned primarily by whites, for redistribution to landless peasants, who were predominantly black, without compensation. Under the Lancaster House Agreement, signed in 1979 to bring about majority rule in Zimbabwe, the government had committed to engaging in land redistribution through a willing-buyer/willing-seller framework. Commercial farmers would receive market-value compensation for their land, and the British and American governments would provide the funds to support the program. But by the late-1990s, the program had fallen apart. British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s new Labour government declared in 1997 that it was under no obligation to provide funds for land acquisition and raised questions about the transparency of the program. At the same time, the Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association -- a group representing those who had fought against Ian Smith’s white-led regime, though some of its members were too young to have actually seen any combat -- was applying more and more pressure on the government to compensate its members for their service.

The government sought to rewrite the constitution to permit it to seize farmland without compensation to redistribute it, but voters defeated those changes in 2000. In response, war veterans and ZANU-PF supporters began invading commercial farms with the government’s approval. Farmers were forced off their land, and many of the invasions turned violent. Mugabe’s government dismissed all claims that such seizures were illegal, and it replaced judges who sought to stop the farm invasions. Opponents of farm seizures, such as the newly formed Movement for Democratic Change, found themselves subject to police harassment, imprisonment and violent reprisals.

The combination of decreasing democratic practices, increased human rights violations and land seizures triggered the move toward international censure of Zimbabwe. The U.S. Congress passed the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act of 2001, compelling the U.S. to oppose any new loans or grants to Zimbabwe from international financial institutions such as the World Bank or International Monetary Fund except those that promote democracy or ensure access to basic needs. (U.S. government officials note that, regardless of U.S. policy, Zimbabwe is currently ineligible for most loans from either the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund because it is in arrears to those organizations.) As violence continued, a growing number of countries and organizations imposed sanctions on Zimbabwe. Australia introduced a travel ban and asset freezes against 152 individuals and four companies, as well as an arms embargo, in 2002. The European Union implemented similar restrictions against more than 100 Zimbabwean government officials and allies of Mugabe that same year. The following year, U.S. President George W. Bush signed Executive Order 13288, blocking the assets of 77 Zimbabwean government officials in response to “the deliberate breakdown in the rule of law in Zimbabwe, to politically motivated violence and intimidation in that country, and to political and economic instability.” Various international organizations raised alarms about Zimbabwe’s descent into political chaos, urging the global community to take strong action against the Mugabe regime.

By 2003, Zimbabwe was increasingly isolated from many Western states, as their governments mandated respect for democracy and an end to political violence as a condition for ending their sanctions.

The Look East Policy

Mugabe’s government did not cower in the face of Western sanctions. Instead of taking them as a sign for the need to reform, ZANU-PF interpreted the sanctions as proof that Western states sought to recolonize Zimbabwe -- and the rest of the Global South. Sanctions and diplomatic isolation, in this reading, were not tools for promoting good governance, but rather deliberate strategies to weaken the country so that the United States and the United Kingdom could exploit its natural resources.

Zimbabwe responded by essentially thumbing its nose at the West’s attempts to diplomatically isolate it. The logic that inspired Zimbabwe’s Look East policy was based on the belief that it was better to find a new group of allies that would engage with Zimbabwe without worrying about its domestic politics, rather than try to curry favor with states that seek only to weaken the country.

The Zimbabwean Ministry of Foreign Affairs has never released any formal document outlining the tenets of the Look East policy, but its basic thrust is clear in government pronouncements and the international travel patterns of Zimbabwean officials. In implementing the policy, the government has primarily, but not exclusively, cultivated closer ties with Asian states, including China, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia and North Korea. Outside of Asia, the government has strengthened its relations with other outcast states, such as Venezuela and Gadhafi-era Libya. What unites these countries is that they tend to have ambivalent or hostile relationships with Western states. Mugabe has claimed that their similar colonial histories make these states better allies for Zimbabwe than Western states. He has also emphasized that these states have prospered despite -- and, by his argument, because of -- rejecting the economic and political advice of the West. Rather than having been weakened by the experience, these states have emerged as significant economic competitors to the West by challenging it.

Most Western states have seen this policy as a move of desperation: Zimbabwe, they reason, has turned to its Eastern allies in the hope that they will provide assistance without seeking to meddle in the country's internal affairs. The Zimbabwean government tells a different story. The Herald, a state-owned newspaper, asserts that the policy is a direct result of the British government's failure to support Zimbabwe's land-redistribution program as promised in the 1979 Lancaster House agreement. The Zimbabwean government sees land redistribution as crucial to its identity as a self-reliant and autonomous state, and it views the British refusal to fund the program as evidence of an attempt to sabotage that identity. Zimbabwe’s allies, by contrast, sympathize with its plight because they share a history of exploitation and misallocation of resources at the hands of British, French and American interests. They are therefore willing to support the Zimbabwean government's efforts to take corrective actions and bolster its identity.

China has played a particularly significant role in Zimbabwe’s foreign policy and making the Look East policy a reality. Trade between China and Zimbabwe has increased significantly over the past decade. ZimStats, the government’s official statistics agency, reported that trade between the two countries topped $800 million in 2011 -- double the amount of trade it reported the year before. The Chamber of Chinese Enterprises in Zimbabwe has 53 members with more than 1,200 employees, and those figures largely exclude Chinese state-owned companies that have pledged large amounts for infrastructure and resource extraction. Anjin Investments invested $460 million in Zimbabwe in 2011 to develop the Marange diamond fields in conjunction with the Zimbabwean military. The Shandong Taishan Sunlight Group has announced plans to invest $2 billion to develop coal mines and energy production capabilities in the western part of Zimbabwe, while the China Development Bank intends to invest $10 billion in the country over the next 5 years. China has also sponsored health care initiatives, like the 2010 China-Africa Brightness Action in Malawi and Zimbabwe, which provided cataract surgeries to more than 600 patients in need.

Other countries in the alternative international alliance that Zimbabwe has built have also engaged with the country in significant ways. Iran has pledged to help Zimbabwe modernize its defense forces as a sign of “consolidating and deepening” the relationship between the two countries. Zimbabwean officials have hailed this cooperation as important for allowing Zimbabwe to protect its land and culture and resist threats from Western countries. The Herald rejected accusations that aligning itself with an international pariah like Iran would be dangerous, countering, “The West’s neocolonial agenda should only make us stronger.” Zimbabwe and Russia recently signed an agreement, the Bilateral Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement, to facilitate trade and economic investment in Zimbabwe. Russian oil and gas companies have expressed particular interest in using the agreement to develop resource extraction opportunities. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez signed an agreement between his government and Mugabe’s to encourage greater cooperation on energy, agriculture, and economic and social affairs. The Singapore Business Federation has described Zimbabwe as “one of the most promising countries on the African continent.”

The economic benefits of the Look East policy are perhaps the most tangible, but the strategy has also given Zimbabwe greater protection within various international forums. Zimbabwe’s 2008 presidential election featured incredibly high levels of political violence. The MDC reported that 193 of its supporters were killed in the run-up to the elections, with another 200 or so missing and presumed dead. MDC candidate Morgan Tsvangirai eventually withdrew from the run-off after saying that he could not in good conscience ask his supporters to risk their lives by voting for him. In the face of this violence, the United Nations Security Council introduced a resolution that would have put an arms embargo on the country in addition to instituting a travel ban and asset freeze against Mugabe and 13 senior government officials most responsible for the violence. However, the resolution failed when both Russia and China vetoed it. Russia’s United Nations ambassador argued that the situation in Zimbabwe posed no threat to international peace and stability and therefore did not fall under the Security Council’s mandate. China’s representative echoed this theme, saying that it was entirely a domestic matter and that United Nations involvement would make it harder to resolve. This fits with China’s general policy of noninterference in domestic Zimbabwean politics. (The political crisis was ultimately resolved through a power-sharing government brokered by then-south African President Thabo Mbeki, with Tsvangirai becoming prime minister in February 2009.)

Zimbabwe’s strategy has worked to generate support among regional partners, too. Zambian President Michael Sata has criticized his predecessors for trying to pressure Mugabe to change his policies, charging that they did so only because Western states forced Zambia to do it as a precondition for receiving aid. Sata also took a swipe at Tsvangirai and the MDC, saying that they “should not fight President Mugabe on behalf of the imperialists.” Mugabe has also managed to win support from the African Union and the Southern African Development Community by emphasizing that other African states are vulnerable to the same challenges and threats that Zimbabwe faces from the West. In these same forums, he has criticized “cowardly” African leaders who have chastised his government, alleging that they are being manipulated by Western interests and acting as midwives for Western neocolonialism.

With the support of its allies, Zimbabwe has found the strength to fight back against and rebut its Western critics. Mugabe and his allies have lambasted Western states for supporting the MDC, saying that it was proof that their interest in Zimbabwe was premised entirely on regime change and neocolonial aspirations. And on the occasions when two of its neighbors, Botswana and South Africa, did express discomfort with Zimbabwe’s policies in recent years, the government has responded forcefully, describing Botswana as a proxy for U.S. interests and South African President Jacob Zuma as selling out Africa’s liberation. Through its forceful denunciation of its critics, Zimbabwe has managed to cow other states into supporting it, convincing them that the benefits of standing with Zimbabwe were far greater than those of appeasing Western interests.

Through the Look East policy, Mugabe has essentially tapped into new centers of power within the global community. Rather than being isolated and shunned, Zimbabwe has created a parallel diplomatic track that largely ignores the demands of the West.

Is It Working?

At its most crude level, Zimbabwe’s Look East policy has proved successful. Zimbabwe seems to have found a way to consolidate an alternative network of international political and economic support in the face of strong Western opposition. Mugabe is still in power, and it is highly unlikely that ZANU-PF will lose the next elections. Zimbabwe’s economy is rebounding. Mugabe remains highly popular throughout Africa, and critics like Zuma have failed to convince either Mugabe or his supporters to change their ways. The European Union, Australia and Canada have either taken steps to relax some of their travel bans and asset freezes or have indicated their willingness to review them. As Michael Holman argued in New African magazine in 2009, Mugabe’s ability to persevere, and indeed prosper, in the face of Western sanctions proves both their lack of efficacy and that they were “motivated by pique” on the part of countries “seeking revenge on the man who has outwitted them, rather than acting in the long-term interests of Zimbabwe.”

All that said, there are reasons for concern about Zimbabwe’s foreign policy strategy. First, Mugabe is 89 years old. He has repeatedly claimed that God wants him to be president and is the only one who can remove him from office, but his age raises questions about succession. Are Zimbabwe’s foreign allies committed to the country or to the man occupying State House? The answer is not clear.

Second, the tangible benefits from Zimbabwe’s Look East policy are questionable. There are many announcements about big projects and substantial investments from the country’s Look East partners, but such proclamations are not always followed by results. A 2012 newspaper report trumpeted that China Railway would invest $1.2 billion to develop a high-speed train route between Harare and Bulawayo, but senior officials with China Railway in Zimbabwe knew nothing of the project. The operations at the Marange diamond fields, a collaboration between China’s Anjin Investments and the Zimbabwean military, are producing approximately $600 million in earnings, but the country’s treasury has only received $30 million. The announcements may look good, but they will provide little benefit to the country if nothing comes of them.

Third, Zimbabwe’s foreign policies could provoke domestic backlashes. Sweetheart deals with allies deprive Zimbabwe of much-needed revenue from its abundant natural resources. Complaints about shoddy goods and foreign workers taking scarce jobs that could be filled by unemployed Zimbabweans have led to an uptick in xenophobic attacks and rhetoric. ZANU-PF has charged the MDC with being in the pocket of Western powers, but at the same time there is growing concern among Zimbabweans that ZANU-PF is largely serving foreign interests at the expense of domestic needs.

Finally, Zimbabwe needs its allies more than its allies need Zimbabwe. Talk of creating an anti-imperialist bloc to counter Western aggression may feature in some of the rhetoric of Zimbabwe and its partners, but fundamentally Zimbabwe needs these allies for basic infusions of cash. Moreover, for all the talk of Western neocolonialism, Zimbabwe still engages in significant trade with the United Kingdom, the United States and other countries that it has labeled predatory. Trade between the United States and Zimbabwe doubled between 2003 and 2008, even as the United States imposed targeted sanctions against members of the Zimbabwean government. The United Kingdom remains Zimbabwe’s second-most-important trading partner, importing $1.62 billion in goods from Zimbabwe in 2011. The trade balance between the European Union and Zimbabwe was $271 million in Zimbabwe’s favor in 2011. By contrast, its trade balance with China that same year was $320 million in China’s favor. This all suggests that the rhetoric from ZANU-PF and Mugabe is more about whipping up nationalist support and building political credibility than about making any forceful stand against imperialism or neocolonialism.

Zimbabwe’s efforts to create a parallel diplomatic track based on some shared notion of an anti-imperialist and anti-neocolonial alliance against the West seems to have borne fruit in the short term. The Look East policy has helped Mugabe stay in power and challenge his opponents. Whether it can work in the long term or transcend the narrowly defined commercial interests of its allies remains to be seen.

Jeremy Youde is an associate professor of political science at the University of Minnesota Duluth. His previous research on Zimbabwe has appeared in International Journal and Africa Today, and his most recent book is “Global Health Governance” (Polity, 2012).

Photo: Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, February 2, 2009 (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jesse B. Awalt).