Leading article: The new colonial masters

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The three million rounds of Chinese ammunition now docked in a port in South Africa are only the most recent evidence of a deepening relationship between China and Zimbabwe. China has had its eye on the natural resources of Africa for many years. As a result of a meticulously planned wooing of African leaders, China now imports nearly 30 per cent of its oil from Africa along with substantial amounts of copper, uranium, gold, silver and platinum. China will soon overtake the US and Europe as Africa's foremost trading partner.

Beijing's willingness to give aid and extend credit without attaching any conditions about good governance or human rights is winning friends across Africa, but nowhere more so than in Zimbabwe. In 2005 Mr Mugabe signed a big aid deal with China. A year later he signed a massive energy treaty, bartering chrome and other mineral concessions for new Chinese-built coal mines and power stations. China is to rebuild Zimbabwe's rail network, provide trains and buses and 12 fighter jets. Last year it swapped agricultural machinery for tobacco. It provides spare parts for military vehicles which are banned under Western sanctions. It has sold water cannons, bugging equipment and a jamming device to block independent radio stations. It even provided all the pro-Mugabe T-shirts in the run-up to the elections.

Last year China promised the Foreign Office minister, Lord Malloch Brown, that it will curb such support. But words are cheap. Recently the Communist party mouthpiece, The People's Daily, wrote, insultingly, that democracy was not suited to Africans. And China needs the backing of African nations in the United Nations to fight off hostile resolutions over its human rights record, or Taiwan. The time has come for the rest of the world to make it clear to Beijing, which is desperate to avoid any further international embarrassment in the run-up to the Olympics, that support for regimes like Mr Mugabe's can only bring further international opprobrium.

As for Mr Mugabe, he marked Zimbabwean Independence Day yesterday by complaining of neo-colonialism and how Britain wants to retake control of Zimbabwe. He and other African leaders should think more carefully. There is a danger of their countries becoming a victim of a re-colonisation. But the threat is not from the West. It comes from the East.

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