BEIJING – A shipment of weapons to Zimbabwe that drew widespread condemnation will be returned to China because there was no way to deliver it, the Foreign Ministry said Thursday.
Countries neighboring landlocked Zimbabwe refused to allow the Chinese freighter An Yue Jiang to dock at their ports. That followed heavy pressure from unions and church and human rights groups, bolstered by behind-the-scenes pressure from the United States.
Critics argued that providing the Zimbabwe security forces with the weapons, including mortar grenades and bullets, could worsen reported attacks on opponents of President Robert Mugabe amid a political standoff over a contested election.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu refused to acknowledge the objections, calling the shipment a purely commercial transaction that broke no laws and accusing critics of wanting to "create conflict between China and African countries."
"This cargo was not unloaded because the Zimbabwe side was unable to take delivery as scheduled," Jiang said. Jiang said the contract for the weapons had been signed last year and was unrelated to the ongoing strife.
There is no international arms embargo against Zimbabwe, and China is one of the southern African nation's main trade partners and allies.
China's global weapons exports are considered tiny in dollar terms, although Beijing is a principal exporter of cheap, simple small arms that are blamed for fueling violence in Sudan and other parts of Africa.
Apart from that, the timing of the arms shipment had further cast a spotlight on China's ties with Africa, where its aggressive business practices and support for authoritarian regimes have drawn increasing scrutiny.
In Washington, the State Department said it had urged countries in southern Africa — notably South Africa, Mozambique, Angola and Namibia — not to allow the ship to dock or unload. It also said it had asked the Chinese government to recall the vessel and not to make further weapons shipments to Zimbabwe until the post-election crisis is resolved.
Jiang did not say what response China had given Washington.