HARARE - Zimbabwe has had to "cough up" $180 million in Chinese loan repayments or face losing its credit line, its finance minister said on Wednesday, in a sign Beijing is tightening its lending terms and expects debtors to be more accountable.
In the absence of funding from Western countries, Zimbabwe's longtime President Robert Mugabe has increasingly sought help from China, which has lent the southern African country $1 billion over the last five years.
Zimbabwe's total foreign debt, including to the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, is $9 billion.
"In the first six months of this year we have had to cough up $180 million, which was not in the budget, just to make ourselves look good," Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa told business leaders in Harare.
For more than a decade China has been lending and investing heavily in Africa to secure supplies of oil, coal, iron ore and other resources, and its companies have been helping build badly needed ports, roads and railways across the continent.
Although China's support for Mugabe stretches back to the days when it backed his guerrilla war against white-ruled Rhodesia in the 1970s, Beijing is clearly not about to dole out blank checks even to its poorest friends.
"We had been borrowing from the Chinese financial institutions and as soon as we borrowed, we never went back, even to tell them that we had some challenges which prevented us from honoring the commitments," Chinamasa said. "They wondered what kind of debtors we were."
Chinamasa said he had travelled to Beijing three times to lay the groundwork for Mugabe's state visit to China last month, where the veteran leader sought support to help a struggling economy.
During his visit, Mugabe signed a $290 million loan with China's Exim bank to expand the network of state mobile carrier NetOne, Chinamasa said.
The government will take over NetOne's $360 million debt to receive another $98 million loan from China's Exim bank while the Chinese government has given Zimbabwe a $150 million grant to improve infrastructure on farms seized from white farmers. Although Zimbabwe has struggled to repay loans to China, trade between the two has been rising.
China benefits from the credit it extends to Zimbabwe as its companies are involved in the construction of power stations, roads, dams and other projects there.
This lending model has allowed China to secure much-needed metals and energy resources across Africa and subsidize its construction industry in return for cheap loans.
Zimbabwe is being forced to create new companies to take over the assets of power plants and roads financed by China. The firms plan to collect money from road tolls and electricity sales, which will be used to repay the loans.
China's Sino Hydro was in June awarded a $1.3 billion contract to add 600 megawatts at the Hwange coal-fired power station while China Sunlight Energy is working on energy projects worth $2 billion.
Chinamasa said Zimbabwe and China had signed agreements with Chinese firms to expand a 459 mile road that connects Zambia and South Africa, as well as two major roads stretching 310 miles. Agreements had also been signed to import locomotives for the state railway firm.
"There was a commitment by President Xi Xinping to support Zimbabwe in the funding of these projects that we tabled," Chinamasa said.