China is considering sending humanitarian assistance to hard-hit Zimbabwe, which is suffering from a major cholera epidemic that has already killed at least 600 people.  However, a Chinese spokesman has refrained from joining other world leaders in calling for Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe to step down. 

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao says Beijing is concerned with the deterioration of the situation in Zimbabwe.

Liu says China is considering sending emergency humanitarian aid, including food aid, to Zimbabwe.  He gave no details, but said the Chinese government will try to ensure the aid reaches the Zimbabwean people.

China has already donated $500,000 worth of cholera vaccines to Zimbabwe.

At a Tuesday ministry briefing, Liu was asked repeatedly about whether China supports American and European Union calls for Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe to step down.  The Chinese spokesman did not mention Mr. Mugabe by name, but said Beijing hopes the Zimbabwean people will be able to form a national unity government at an early date.

Liu says how the leaders of Zimbabwe go about resolving what he describes as "the current situation" is an internal issue and China that will not intervene.

China is one of Zimbabwe's most significant trading partners and the biggest buyer of Zimbabwean tobacco. The Chinese Embassy in Harare says the bilateral trade volume could surpass $500 million this year, with the balance of trade very much in China's favor.

Amidst the political turmoil following a March election, in which President Mugabe's government suffered heavy losses, China denied media reports that a Chinese arms shipment meant for Zimbabwe had, indeed, reached the country.  Chinese officials said the ship, carrying the weapons, was turned back to China after several other countries in the region refused to let it offload in their ports.

Beijing is also seen as one of Zimbabwe's staunchest diplomatic defenders.  Earlier this year, China and Russia used their veto power to block action against Zimbabwe in the United Nations Security Council.