Zimbabwe is intent on 'leapfrogging 18 years of isolation' with China's help

Key Points
  • Zimbabwe's President Emmerson Mnangagwa is in China on a five-day state visit, his first outside of Africa since assuming power last November.
  • Mnangagwa intends to thank China for its support, reassure foreign investors and could walk away from talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping with backing for infrastructure projects.
  • It has also been reported that Zimbabwe is in talks to re-join the Commonwealth, a 53-nation bloc of former British colonies.
Zimbabwe's President Emmerson Mnangagwa (L) shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, on April 3, 2018.

Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa touched down in China this week for a five-day state visit which could bear fruits for his country's troubled economy.

Prior to the trip, Mnangagwa outlined his economic agenda in an interview with China's state-run news outlet Xinhua. "The issue is not only about attracting capital into Zimbabwe. It's an issue of leapfrogging after 18 years of isolation so that we catch up with the rest of the developing countries," he said on Sunday.

The trip, which takes place from Monday to Friday of this week, is Mnangagwa's first state visit outside of Africa since taking over from Robert Mugabe. Mnangagwa met his Chinese counterpart President Xi Jinping on Tuesday.

"We must have deeper economic relations with China. We know the road that we need to follow to grow our economy," he said. Mnangagwa also spoke of his intention to reassure Chinese investors of "the security of investment that we have created in our own jurisdiction."

Zimbabwe and China's relationship dates back to 1979, in which China provided former President Robert Mugabe's guerrilla fighters with weapons and training in the Rhodesian Bush War — part of Zimbabwe's fight for independence from its British colonial government. Both Mugabe and his successor Mnangagwa have been described as friends by the Chinese government.

Mnangagwa visited China in the 1960s for military training.

Chinese and Zimbabwean national flags in front of the Tian'anmen Rostrum on April 3, 2018, in Beijing, China.
VCG | Getty Images

"I will say thank you not only to the president of China but also the people of China for standing and supporting Zimbabwe during the hard times when the West imposed sanctions on us," Mnangagwa told Xinhua.

As well as reinforcing amicable relations and reassuring Chinese investors, Mnangagwa could walk away from his meeting with Xi with backing for a "huge number of projects to be undertaken on the infrastructure side," Martin Plaut, senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, told CNBC Tuesday.

Areas for economic collaboration between Zimbabwe and China include infrastructure, mining and transport. Zimbabwe is known for gold and diamond exports as well as tobacco, for which China was its top export market in 2016.

Mnangagwa assumed power in Zimbabwe in November last year after military intervention ended Mugabe's 37-year tenure.

Zimbabwe's President Emmerson Mnangagwa (C) with Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) during a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, on April 3, 2018.
Greg Baker | AFP | Getty Images

Question marks remain over Chinese involvement in the upheaval. Zimbabwe's military chief General Constantino Chiwenga visited China days before the tables turned for Mugabe. China also sent an envoy to Zimbabwean capital Harare soon after Mnangagwa took power. China says that it did not play any role in Mugabe's downfall.

Mnangagwa has been touting a "Zimbabwe is open for business" mantra in an effort to reboot the country's economy, which has famously struggled with corruption and hyperinflation.

This could mean also rapprochement with the West as it has been reported that Zimbabwe is in talks to re-join the Commonwealth, a 53-nation bloc of former British colonies, which could bring political and economic benefits. Mugabe withdrew membership in 2003 following a dispute over sanctions.

Nonetheless, "It's hard to overestimate the relationship between Zimbabwe and China," Plaut said. "This is the most important trip that (Mnangagwa) can make."