JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — As protests intensified across southern Africa against the shipment of Chinese-made arms intended for Zimbabwe, the government in Beijing said on Tuesday that the ship carrying the arms — owned by a large Chinese state-owned company, COSCO — may return to China because of the difficulties in delivering the goods.

South Africa's High Court on Friday barred transport of the ammunition, rockets and mortar rounds across South Africa from the port of Durban to landlocked Zimbabwe, after an Anglican archbishop argued that the arms were likely to be used to crush the Zimbabwean opposition after last month's disputed election.

South Africa's dock workers also said they would refuse to unload the shipment, a call backed up by the country's powerful coalition of trade unions. On Friday, the ship, An Yue Jiang, left Durban for the open seas, and on Tuesday South Africa's Defense Ministry said it was somewhere off Africa's west coast.

Jiang Yu, a spokeswoman for China's Foreign Ministry, said at a news briefing in Beijing that the shipment was part of "normal military trade" between Zimbabwe and China, and called on other nations not to politicize the issue. But acknowledging the resistance to the shipment, she said China was considering shipping the arms back to China.

According to documents provided to South African authorities and leaked to journalists here, Poly Technologies, a Chinese state-owned arms company, made the arms, weighing 77 tons and worth $1.245 million.

The impromptu coalition of trade unions, church leaders and organizations trying to stop the delivery gained an important ally on Monday when Levy Mwanawasa, the president of Zambia, who heads a bloc of 14 southern African nations, called on other countries in the region not to let the ship dock in their ports.

Mwanawasa's statements, made to reporters as he returned from a regional conference in Mauritius, were remarkable because few African heads of state have been openly critical of Zimbabwe.

The United States has also pressed countries in the region — including Namibia and Angola, both allies of President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe — not to accept the arms shipment. At a news briefing on Tuesday in Washington, Tom Casey, a State Department spokesman, said American officials had taken up the issue with China as well.

"We don't think it's appropriate at this point, given the political upheaval that's occurring in Zimbabwe, for anyone to be adding extra tinder to that situation by providing additional weapons to Zimbabwe security forces," Casey said.