Two weeks ago, Zimbabwe’s military chief, General Constantino Chiwenga, paid a visit to Beijing. There he met top officials of the world’s largest military.
“China and Zimbabwe are all-weather friends,” said Li Zuocheng, chief of the joint staff of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), according to a Chinese media report on the meeting. “Chinese President Xi Jinping and Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe have reached important consensus on deepening the friendly and mutually beneficial cooperation between China and Zimbabwe.” By Tuesday, Mugabe was gone after a military coup led by officials including Chiwenga.
Given the timing of events, observers believe China played a role in Mugabe’s ousting, a claim China strongly denies. Either way, the events underline China’s growing importance on the world stage.
The issue of whether Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley was invited or dis-invited from a formal Chinese government event has triggered barbs between Rowley and the Opposition; commentary from members of civil society; and even a public spat between a government minister and a former head of the Public Service. None of it alters the fundamental nature of the relationship between Trinidad and Tobago and China. It is an important relationship in which China’s influence looks set to rise.
With the United States’ standing in the world faltering due to Donald Trump, China is poised to take on a greater role in global affairs. Zimbabwe’s regime change may be an example of a more aggressive stance.
Xi has steadily consolidated his power. One month ago, he presided over the five-yearly Chinese national Congress and named no obvious successor. Furthermore, he had his “Xi Jinping Thought: Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” written into the Chinese constitution. It was a symbolic gesture done only once before: by Mao Zedong.
A leader who exerts such dominance over his nation may want to replicate that dominance on the world stage.
The decision taken after the congress to abruptly review an event at which ten world leaders—including Rowley— had been due was therefore unlikely to be a mere coincidence.
The question is what will be the nature of the relationship between Trinidad and Tobago and China going forward? Will it be a one-sided trade relationship in which Chinese goods, services and financing dominate? Will this country be able to draw upon strategic support from China given our economic woes? Instead of focusing on who was invited to what and where, we should focus on why China is important in the first place.
Key matters of concern include the targeting of Chinese nationals by criminals, the future of government-to-government loan arrangements to support large-scale projects, the degree of transparency in relation to any arrangements, and procurement of services. Furthermore, what is our stance on Xi’s clampdown on human rights? These issues should be engaging our attention whether or not the prime minister visits Beijing