By Ben Dooley*
President Xi Jinping greeted Zimbabwean counterpart Emmerson Mnangagwa as an “old friend” of China on Tuesday as the African leader visited Beijing, which previously backed his ousted predecessor Robert Mugabe.
Mnangagwa, who received military training in China when he was a young liberation fighter in the 1960s, was met with a military honour guard at the Great Hall of the People on his first state visit outside of Africa.
The two leaders oversaw the signing of six documents, including a letter on economic and development cooperation and another on emergency food assistance, as Mnanangwa seeks help from a major ally with historic ties to Zimbabwe.
“I heartily welcome President Mnangagwa on his visit to Beijing,” Xi said as the two sat down for talks.
“You are an old friend of China and I appreciate your efforts to develop relations in all areas,” he said.
Mugabe sacked Mnangagwa from his job as vice president in November over a succession tussle with the first lady Grace Mugabe, leading to a military intervention that culminated with the veteran president’s ousting and Mnangagwa taking office.
The country’s then-army chief, General Constantino Chiwenga, had visited Beijing shortly before the military action, leading to questions about whether China had any role in the power transfer.
Chiwenga was named vice president in December. China denied it played any part in the transition.
Beijing had long been one of Mugabe’s most powerful allies and a major trade partner, as the West shunned him over his government’s human rights violations, but it avoided publicly taking sides during his ousting.
“Last November Zimbabwe achieved a peaceful, smooth transfer of power that was broadly recognised by the international community,” Xi said.
“I am willing to work with Mr. president (Mnangagwa) to jointly map out our future cooperation and write a new chapter in China-Zimbabwe relations for the benefit of our two peoples.”
Mnangagwa, wearing a scarf in the the colours of Zimbabwe’s flag, told Xi he appreciated China’s “political support and goodwill” following the “peaceful political transition in Zimbabwe”.
– ‘Socialism with Zimbabwean characteristics’ –
Mnangagwa has also been accused of playing a key role in his mentor Mugabe’s authoritarian regime that left the economy in ruins and under sanctions.
He was targeted by EU and US measures imposed on Mugabe and his close allies over violence and intimidation during Zimbabwe’s 2008 presidential campaign.
The visit comes as China takes a more proactive role in Africa, where it has long invested in infrastructure projects and sought resources. It has recently built its first overseas military base in Djibouti.
Relations between China and Zimbabwe date back to the liberation struggle of the 1960s, when Beijing provided arms and trained some of the top guerrilla leaders including Mnangagwa.
Before his arrival on Monday, Mnangagwa told China’s official Xinhua news agency that his trip was aimed at thanking Xi and the Chinese people for supporting his country “during the hard times when the West imposed sanctions on us”.
He said he would seek to sell Zimbabwe as a destination for Chinese investment and take part in economic forums aimed at attracting business to the country.
Zimbabwe was China’s largest foreign supplier of tobacco, with some 40 percent of the product imported by the Asian country coming from the African nation.
China also set up a joint venture with Zimbabwe in a diamond mining company, but Mugabe announced the nationalisation of the nation’s diamond mines in 2016.
Chinese companies have also been involved in projects to install a cellular phone network, expand a hydropower station and build a coal-fired power plant.
Mnangagwa will meet Premier Li Keqiang on Wednesday, then visit the eastern provinces of Anhui and Zhejiang before his visit ends on Friday.
The Zimbabwean leader gave a nod to his host’s political philosophy, “Xi Jinping thought on socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era.”
“I will take this mantra to Zimbabwe and hope to develop some socialism in Zimbabwe with Zimbabwean characteristics,” he said.