Earlier this week the US state department expressed concerns that the arms "could be used against individuals who are merely trying to freely express their political will".

 

Commenting on the shipment at a regular foreign ministry press briefing in Beijing, spokeswoman Jiang Yu said the decision had been taken by the Chinese company involved to recall the vessel.

 

She said the shipment was completely legal and fell within the established norms of international trade.

 

"In the field of conventional weapons, we have trade relations with some countries. These are consistent with our laws and with Security Council resolutions and China's international obligations," Jiang said.

 

"We have been very responsible and cautious with regards to weapons exports."

 

Mediation

 

China has been under pressure to use its close relations with Robert Mugabe, the Zimbabwean president, to help mediate in the election crisis.

 

However William Hess, country manager for China with the consultancy company, Global Insight, said such pressure runs against a key pillar of Chinese foreign policy - not to interfere in domestic political issues of other countries.

 

"The Chinese side would be very reluctant to take on this role where they take a very and very direct in determining the outcome of a domestic political question," he told Al Jazeera.

 

"They want to make clear to all sides that they are playing a non-interfering role."

 

Officials from Mugabe's Zanu-PF have said Zimbabwe has a sovereign right to defend itself and buy weapons from "any legitimate source worldwide".

 

"I don't understand all this hullabaloo about a lone ship," Patrick Chinamasa, the country's justice minister, said in Harare this week.

"We don't need clearance from anyone."