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China slammed for arming Zimbabwe's Mugabe

China said Tuesday it may turn away a ship full of weapons headed for Zimbabwe's leader.

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The South African trade union confederation, linked to that country's ruling African National Congress (ANC), had also condemned the shipment, warning that delivery of guns and ammunition to the army in Zimbabwe under current circumstances would threaten peace in Zimbabwe.

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By responding to changing African opinion – which appears increasingly impatient with South African President Thabo Mbeki's "quiet diplomacy" toward the Mugabe regime – Chinese leaders seem willing to temper their old revolutionary support when it suits their larger economic and diplomatic interests.

Learning to be a 'responsible player'?

"There is a trend … of China making decisions that reflect the international perspective more than the narrow Chinese perspective," says David Zweig, a professor of Chinese international relations at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. He points to the way Beijing has worked closely with western countries over Darfur for the past year.

"China is learning on this," Professor Zweig adds. "They want to be a responsible player" in world affairs.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu suggested Tuesday that Beijing may abandon efforts to deliver the arms shipment bound for Zimbabwe aboard the An Yue Jiang, in light of the ship's difficulty in unloading the weapons.

"As far as I know the carrier is now considering carrying back the cargo," Ms. Jiang told reporters.

Jiang insisted that the shipment was "perfectly normal trade in military goods between China and Zimbabwe." She added that "the relevant contract was signed last year and has nothing to do with the latest situation in Zimbabwe."

The international row over the arms shipment illustrates the pitfalls of China's growing involvement in Africa, and its difficulties in avoiding domestic African politics.

COSATU, the South African trade union confederation whose members refused to offload the Chinese weapons, has long complained about the way cheap Chinese imports have destroyed jobs in the South African textiles industry.

"This is the first time COSATU has been critical of China's political presence" says Mr. Alden.

The shunned vessel has become an international embarrassment to China at a time when the country's image has already been tarnished by the troubled Olympic torch relay. The apparent decision to recall the ammunition, rocket propelled grenades and mortars, seems designed to curtail the incident.

But while China is attempting to be a more responsible player, Mr. Alden says that the international controversies that have erupted since unrest broke out in Tibet last month, and the imminence of the Olympics, mean that Beijing "is in a heightened state of awareness of international public opinion. This could be another embarrassment so they are much quicker to re-jig their position in the light of criticism."