Box 1. Zambia’s post-independence foreign policy
Since independence, Zambia’s foreign policy has been informed by four factors: its security and geopolitical position; the personality of its leadership; ideology, particularly on independence and sovereignty; and the desire for economic development, balanced between solidarity with its neighbours and its need for external investment.
Zambia achieved independence from the UK in October 1964. By virtue of its location, it was immediately at the forefront of regional decolonization that initially took the form of newly independent white settler states, which pursued racial segregation and conducted military operations to destabilize the region. Despite Zambia’s weak economy and precarious geopolitical situation at that time, President Kenneth Kaunda and his United National Independence Party (UNIP) took principled positions on anti-colonialism and the provision of assistance to liberation movements.
Support for wars of liberation, mineral rent mismanagement, a decline in world copper prices and an increase in the cost of oil imports, all contributed to severe economic stress by the early 1980s. The pace and sequencing of structural debt adjustment programmes in the 1980s caused significant hardship, and, to this day, there is deep resentment and scepticism of the international financial institutions (IFIs). Following elections in 1991, new political leaders faced the challenge of reconciling the post-colonial legacy of an outward looking foreign policy with the imperative of promoting domestic economic development.
As an expression of its desire for self-sufficiency, economic independence and mutual economic cooperation with other countries, Zambia played a prominent role in the foundation of regional organizations, including the Southern African Development Coordination Conference in 1980, which later became the Southern African Development Community. In 1981, Zambia co-founded a larger economic partnership – the Preferential Trade Area for Eastern and Southern Africa, later renamed the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), with a secretariat in Lusaka. These blocs are important for Zambia’s regional trade, particularly in small-scale manufactured or consumer products, foodstuffs and the informal sector. However, large external markets continue to dominate bilateral trade, especially the export of mined products.
China and Russia
The history of Sino-Zambian relations dates back to China’s support for Zambian independence, which was followed by a period of political and economic assistance, primarily through infrastructure development. In 1967, Kenneth Kaunda visited China and secured support for a rail link to the Indian Ocean through Tanzania, to provide access to world markets without exports having to go through white minority-governed Rhodesia or apartheid South Africa. The TAZARA railway was completed in 1975, and it is still one of the largest Chinese aid projects on the continent. China has subsequently been a significant funder of other infrastructure projects and a major importer of copper products.
However, successive Zambian leaders have had to contend with balancing the macroeconomic importance of China with negative local perceptions, and the relationship with China is a domestic political issue of growing importance. Many Zambians are suspicious of, or even hostile to, Chinese enterprises, citing unfair labour practices and human rights violations. The opacity of Chinese lending and its politicization – notably links to the Zambian ruling party’s domestic campaigning – have led to severe criticism. There are also allegations from the media, civil society and competitor firms of kickbacks and inflated project costs that drive rent-seeking and cronyism.
In 2011, Michael Sata was elected president having at first campaigned on a strong anti-China position. However, his position softened once he was in office, and his administration maintained the relationship with China due to the realpolitik of international relations and the promise of Chinese finance. To many observers, Hichilema has followed a similar path – initially seeming more pro-western, but subsequently working to keep China onside.
Russia also has a history with Zambia that predates independence. The USSR was the first entity to recognize Zambia as an independent state in 1964. Since then, the two parties have cooperated on defence, health and science. In 1967, Zambia and the USSR signed the Agreement on Economic and Technical Cooperation and, in December 1971, the two parties agreed a further trade arrangement. Under the presidency of Edgar Lungu, the Patriotic Front signed a memorandum of cooperation in 2016 with the governing United Russia party to enhance political cooperation between Zambia and Russia.