Hammered by criticism over its own human rights record and perhaps worried about its reputation ahead of the upcoming Summer Olympics, China signaled Tuesday that it might turn around a ship full of arms bound for its longtime ally, Zimbabwe.
The ship had docked first at South Africa's main port, Durban, where South African dock workers refused to offload the nearly 3 million rounds of AK-47 ammunition and thousands of rounds of rocket-propelled grenades and mortars, all bound for the troubled regime of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. Mozambique, Angola, and Namibia have also said the ship is not welcome in their ports.
The apparent withdrawal of the arms shipment by China comes at a time of growing criticism from African leaders for Mr. Mugabe's iron-fisted handling of his domestic opposition in the March 29 elections – where Mugabe's party fared badly in parliamentary elections and where the presidential results have still not been released.
"There is clearly a change among African leaders, with Zambia and Botswana changing their positions. The wall of silence toward Zimbabwe by Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) is broken," says Marian Tupy, a Southern Africa expert at the Cato Institute in Washington. "But what the rest of the world thinks matters little to Mugabe," he adds.
China's history with Mugabe
For President Mugabe, China has been a longtime revolutionary friend in times of need.
During the decade-long war against the white-dominated government of Southern Rhodesia – as Zimbabwe used to be called – it was China that supplied Mugabe's ZANU-PF liberation army with arms, training, logistics, and funding.
But as China attempts to take a larger role on the global stage, particularly in Africa, it is increasingly sensitive to foreign opinions.
While a number of Western governments have criticized the arms shipment, "China is most conscious of African reactions," says Christopher Alden, an expert on Chinese-African relations at the London School of Economics. "This is a response to African governments' public criticism about potentially fueling a crisis."
Zambia, which chairs the SADC, had urged regional states to bar the An Yue Jiang ship from entering their waters.
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.
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."