China′s Xi Jinping in Zimbabwe amid high expectations | Africa | DW | 01.12.2015
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China's Xi Jinping in Zimbabwe amid high expectations

Chinese President Xi Jinping has arrived in Zimbabwe, greeted with a guard of honor. Harare has been keenly waiting for the premier to finalize trade deals that may help stabilize the southern African country's economy.

President Xi's two-day visit which began on Tuesday may increase investors' confidence in Zimbabwe's ailing economy and boost political relations between Harare and Beijing. But analysts warned not to expect too much from the visit.

The visit is the second by a Chinese state leader since the establishment of diplomatic ties 35 years ago. President Robert Mugabe who has fallen out with the West, is on record saying China is Zimbabwe's greatest friend.

"We actually await the visit with great interest," Zimbabwe's state newspaper The Herald quoted President Mugabe as saying. "When he visits us we shall be discussing some of the projects and programs we would want China to assist us in undertaking. It is more than the visit of the Chinese head of state."

Mugabe visited Beijing in September 2014 on a desperate mission to seek financial aid and investment to rescue Zimbabwe's sinking economy.

After the visit, Harare claimed that Mugabe concluded 'mega deals' which would see China financing multi billion dollar infrastructural development programs - including roads, energy, railway, telecoms and agriculture.

A year has passed since that announcement was made but most of the projects are yet to take off, which begs the questions; what stalled the progress and will the visit by the Chinese president mean anything significant?

Robert Mugabe

91 year old President Robert Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe for 35 years.

Uncertain political future

Zimbabwe is grappling with a complicated political transition.

Mugabe who has been in power for 35 years turns 92 years old in February 2016. His long stay in power and his age have fuelled factional fights in his political party - ZANU PF.

Several individuals within ZANU PF want to succeed Mugabe but the veteran leader has kept the succession plan a secret.

Political analysts say Chinese president's visit is important, but may only be for China to secure assurances for its economic interests in the event that Mugabe steps down.

The Chinese could be keen to have a strong leader who will keep the state together and protect their interests.

Zimbabwe holds elections every five years but there is a lack of leadership renewal. Unlike their compatriots, China has consistently changed leaders.

Political analyst Pedzisai Ruhanya says the Chinese government may use their economic power to influence the political transition in Zimbabwe.

"We maybe surprised to see the Chinese unlocking some billions of dollars that could implicitly change the political landscape," Ruhanya said.

Ruhanya however cautiously observed that the role of influencing the succession debate may not be direct and open.

"The Chinese are not known to be candid in the manner they deal with African governments or their friends. This is different with outspoken Western governments who have in the past clashed with Mugabe," Ruhanya said.

In July 2008, China blocked a UN Security Council resolution that sought to impose punitive sanctions on Zimbabwe. The resolution came after a bloody election run off in which hundreds of opposition party supporters were killed.

Straßenszene in Harare, Simbabwe

A Zimbabwean street vendor selling bananas with a push cut. Informal sector makes bulk of employment for Zimbabwe.

Chinese investors wary of Zimbabwe's inconsistent policies

Economists say little has been achieved in implementing the investment projects agreed in the past. Several factors could be blocking the implementation and such investment agreements normally take time to materialize. But this visit could result into bilateral trade deals.

"There are a lot of political uncertainties with respect to the issue of succession," according to economist, Prosper Chitambara."Economic policy inconsistencies have contributed too. Investors are afraid of policy reversals. Added to that Zimbabwe is a bad debtor.

"The Chinese are shrewd business people who are not just going to give you money without assurances and guarantee that you will be able to pay back," Chitambara added.

Zimbabwe owes in excess of $1.8 billion (1.6 billion Euros) to international creditors. This has blocked access to fresh loans from potential lenders.

Aid not sustainable

President Xi is expected to announce a new aid package to African nations this week. However, economic analysts say the idea of aid is not sustainable. Zimbabwe and other African nations are in dire need of infrastructure development and investment in key drivers of the economy.

"Investment should leverage competitiveness. Balance of trade is currently tilted in favor of the Chinese because Zimbabwe and African countries do not have a strong production capacity," Chitambara said.

The friendship between China and Zimbabwe will be put to the test when President Xi and his counterpart Mugabe sit to discuss the details of the trade packages.

Mugabe has promised to use his period as the African Union chairperson to unlock natural resources through added value. He has advocated for the processing of minerals at source against exporting raw materials.

It is yet to be proven whether China will agree.