In bed with Mugabe

My following article appears in today’s ABC Unleashed:

The recent rigged election in Zimbabwe has highlighted the impotence of the international community. Bloggers and activists continue to emphasise the need for President Robert Mugabe to relinquish his hold on power, a position shared by Washington.

But not unlike the Burmese uprising in 2007 that saw China maintain a close relationship with the military junta, Mugabe enjoys the patronage of the Chinese regime. It is the kind of bond that increasingly defines global affairs.

Although a Chinese ship laden with weapons is headed for Zimbabwe and faces difficulties in unloading its cargo, Mugabe knows that, along with numerous other dictators, the rising superpower views its natural resources as a boon to be mutually shared.

The International Herald Tribune explained in 2005:

“While the talk is of democracy sweeping the [African] continent, some experts believe that China’s rising influence in Africa may power its blend of free-market dictatorship, particularly among African leaders already reluctant to turn over power democratically.

“‘We might see the Chinese political system appealing to a lot of states whose elites and regimes are more in line with that sort of thinking,’ said Chris Maroleng, a Zimbabwe expert at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria. ‘It’s really a conflict of two systems, one based on regime security and the other, almost Western, which talks of human security – good governance and human rights.'”

Although China’s standards for trading are undoubtedly different to the West’s, it’s a delusion to presume that Washington, London, Australia and Europe solely engage on the basis of ensuring admirable human rights. America’s unyielding backing of Saudi Arabia – one of the most brutal dictatorships in the Middle East – is but one example of greed coming before women’s equality.

The Independent recently reported that Chinese troops were seen on the streets of Zimbabwe in a clear sign of unity with the Mugabe regime. The paper articulated that the world should get used to this new kind of colonialism:

“As for Mr Mugabe, he marked Zimbabwean Independence Day yesterday by complaining of neo-colonialism and how Britain wants to retake control of Zimbabwe. He and other African leaders should think more carefully. There is a danger of their countries becoming a victim of a re-colonisation. But the threat is not from the West. It comes from the East.”

The inherent fear in the current debate revolves around the declining influence of America during the Bush years, something that I welcome. Although the country remains capable of shaping events far better than any other, the calamitous Iraq war proves that resistance to America’s imperial designs is growing. Countless books are being written that discount Washington’s power in the world, a premature stance. Mark Leonard, author of What Does China Think?, argues that the “China Model” is attractive because America’s policies have becoming annoyingly intrusive:

“Where American policy-makers champion the Washington Consensus, the Chinese talk about the success of gradualism and the ‘Harmonious Society’. Where the USA is bellicose, Chinese policy-makers talk about peace. Whereas American diplomats talk about regime change, their Chinese counterparts talk about respect for sovereignty and the diversity of civilizations.”

Although this is an overly simplistic explanation, a vast number of dictators find its message highly appealing. Author Ian Buruma writes that, “a dogmatic insistence on isolating dictators, such as the Burmese junta, does little to oust them, and actually diminishes America’s influence.”

Intriguingly, many Western commentators who insist on challenging China’s global rise are strong supporters of Washington-led military projection. It’s as if they wish citizens of repressive nations would look at the last eight years of American foreign policy and see nothing other than benign invasions and occupation. Recent polling in the Middle East finds public opinions towards the superpower has fallen since 2006.

This is neither an argument to ignore the plight of the Zimbabwean people nor simply calls to acquiesce in the rise of a values-free foreign policy. It is vital, however, to critically analyse our own global worldview, and improve it, before passing harsh judgement on China’s undoubted appetite for natural resources.

How else can we explain our kow-towing to Saudi King Abdullah? “The sad, awful truth,” wrote Robert Fisk in 2007, “is that we fete these people, we fawn on them, we supply them with fighter jets, whisky and whores.”

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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