- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 15, 2004

The government of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe has ordered more than $240 million worth of jet fighters and other military equipment from China, renewing concerns of a sub-Saharan arms race in a region with no external threats.

The purchase was revealed in a recent parliamentary meeting with Trust Maphosa, the secretary of Zimbabwe’s Defense Ministry, the country’s opposition said yesterday.

“We believe this is a kind of [intimidation] tactic because we are going towards very crucial elections next year,” said opposition spokesman Giles Mutsekwa.

“The idea is that whatever the public does, there is the possibility of it being subverted by the military,” he told Agence France-Presse.

The order was for 12 fighter jets and 100 military vehicles, according to the British Broadcasting Corp.

“Who is giving money to the Mugabe regime to allow it to buy $200 million worth of military equipment when the economy has collapsed?” asked Annabel Hughes, executive director of the Zimbabwe Democracy Trust.

“The world turns a blind eye now when he plans on purchasing new fighter jets and military vehicles to support his one-party dictatorship. Who exactly is the Mugabe regime planning on defending itself from?”

The order has irritated the South African government, according to the Virginia-based Armed Forces Journal International (AFJI), which is described as a quasi-official U.S. military publication.

According to AFJI, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the South African foreign affairs minister, has asked China to stop selling weapons to the region. The South African Embassy in Washington yesterday called that report false.

“It is clear that the South African government’s position is that Zimbabwe is an independent sovereign nation and any decision to buy arms is a decision for the Zimbabwe people,” said Tshepo Mazibuko, an embassy spokesman.

Asked whether the South African government had approached the Chinese government on this issue, as reported in AFJI, Mr. Mazibuko said, “The ministry spokesman does not recall that conversation.”

“Hopefully, this might be the jolt that will force [South African President Thabo] Mbeki’s failed ‘quiet diplomacy’ policy to one of engagement with Zimbabwe. Everybody knows that the anarchic Mugabe regime is already a threat to the region without Chinese jets and military vehicles,” Miss Hughes said.

In 1998, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan asked that all the countries in the region cap military spending at 1.5 percent of the gross domestic product, but Zimbabwe is at 3.4 percent, Namibia at 3.6 percent and South Africa at 1.7 percent.

China also is projecting into the region.

“For the last 18 months, China has had a policy to expand its influence in Africa,” said John Tkacik, China specialist at the Heritage Foundation. “There is definitely a full-court press by China to engage not just in Asia and Latin America, but also Africa.”

He said Chinese “initiatives” are targeting African countries under pressure from the West for human rights problems.

“That makes Zimbabwe pretty attractive,” he said.

Zimbabwe is experiencing a food crisis, and the World Food Program is feeding more than 600,000 Zimbabweans. Zimbabwe’s government says the country is experiencing a “bumper crop.”

This story is based in part on wire service reports.

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