Zimbabwe-China Commerce: Realism or Liberalism?

Published on 7th September 2010

Mugabe with Zimbabwe's First Lady in China
In July 2010, Zimbabwe and China held the eighth session of the Zimbabwe-China Joint Permanent Commission. This has reaffirmed both countries as commerce/trade partners and  made Zimbabwe one of China’s most important export and investment destinations in Africa.

Liberalism has difficulty in explaining this growing development because an absence of facilitative institutions and differing political systems should discourage commerce between Zimbabwe and China. Although liberalism shows that co-operation promotes commerce among countries and enables states to principally ignore concerns of competition and interests as signaled by realism, China’s foreign policy has reflected a balance between realism and liberalism regarding Zimbabwe-China commerce.

If this reflective balance is maintained, both countries could bring a new era of understanding of realism and liberalism and possibly re-affirm a clear commitment to a mutual cooperation that will ensure peace and development.

History of Zimbabwe-China Relations

It is over three decades since Zimbabwe-China co-operation was initiated. Before 1980, China supported Zimbabwe nationalist movements through training, logistics and military support to fight against a white minority Government of Ian Smith that had ruled over four million black Rhodesians based on unequal and discriminatory policies.

As Mugabe one time expressed in The Herald, diplomatic relations between Zimbabwe and China were formally established on the day of independence [April 18, 1980]. Two months later, Deputy Prime Minister of Zimbabwe, Simon Muzenda, travelled to Beijing to further cement the relationship by expressing gratitude for the support China offered throughout the struggle for independence.

Zimbabwe-China commerce became more important during the 2008 Zimbabwe presidential elections. This was a vital time during which Chinese and Zimbabwean relations were thrown into the spotlight. As the United Nations (UN), United States (US) and United Kingdom (UK) were calling for a sanctions against Zimbabwe, China refused to cooperate. It instead insisted on stability and negotiations between the Government and opposition. This confirmed China and Zimbabwe as strong trade partners.

What does this imply?

According to realism, commerce produces income and efficiency gains. These gains, however, have security such that a potential enemy can apply them to improve its military capabilities. To the level that the two sides stand to gain unevenly from their economic exchanges, realists expect security-minded states to avoid commerce. As accentuated by writers such as Gowa (1994) and Grieco (1988, 1990), concerns about security outwardnesses and relative gains would especially obstruct trade between states that perceive each other as potential competitors.

Knowing these realist expectations, one would not have expected Zimbabwe to enter into commercial dealings with China that involve huge, asymmetric, and long-term financial commitments that increase its economic vulnerability. Nevertheless, liberalism does not share realism's assumptions about the primacy of security concerns and the primacy of a unitary state in the conduct of international relations (Moravcsik, 1997; Legro and Moravcsik, 1999).

In this sense, it is liberalism that can attest that Zimbabwe's commercial approaches to China are speared by the private sector with the state reacting to business initiatives.

Considering liberalism's attention to multiple, contesting social interests that seek to influence a state's policy, and its emphasis on the state's response to these interests, it seems only natural to assume that Zimbabwe's democratization process empowers businesses at the expense of its formerly powerful developmental state.

In conclusion, much as China’s foreign policy is still a critical question for most developing countries in understanding the dynamics of world politics especially the politics of commerce, there is a dynamic balancing evidence of Chinese foreign policy from 1949 to-date which in my view shows China’s foreign behaviors balancing with external efforts or balancing with internal efforts. To this end, China’s foreign policy (on Zimbabwe-China commerce) shows a balance between realism and liberalism.

However, realism is not erroneous to propose that states would not enter into intense commercial partnership if they expect to be competitors in the near future. Similarly, liberalism is not off-beam to stress that investors and traders would be discouraged by an absence of robust commercial institutions offering official transparency and ensuring property rights.

Neither countries would have accepted commercial relations based on their foreign policies (especially China’s foreign policy) if they had expected to be held up for economic or political ransom.

By Rangararai Gladys Maroodza,

Graduate Student, Institute of International Studies, Jilin University PR China.


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