Despite China’s enormous population, the country has limited resources, making the security of food supplies a constant preoccupation. For older generations, including President Xi Jinping’s, fear of the political instability associated with the famines of the 1950s and 1960s is firmly etched in their minds. The modern challenge has only grown, with contamination levels rising as a product of industrialisation.
China is the world’s biggest importer of a number of agricultural products, including meat, dairy, soybeans and corn. Since 2013, Beijing has largely adopted a dual approach to safeguarding its food supplies: achieving self-sufficiency in staples (rice and wheat) and key protein sources (particularly pork) while relying on the international market for supplies of non-staples, particularly soybeans.
Beijing has frequently emphasised the importance of increasing domestic production to safeguard food security through a number of policy measures and targets, while Xi has even publicly linked food supplies to national security. However, major concerns such as water scarcity and climate shocks (including droughts and severe flooding) have significantly affected China’s agricultural production, exacerbating shortage fears.
This has seen Beijing expand its agricultural operations overseas and become a key player in agricultural investment and related infrastructure, including farmland. For instance, in the United States in 2021, Chinese investors owned 383,935 acres of agricultural land – nearly one per cent of reported foreign-owned property. This has resulted in local politicians becoming increasingly concerned about China’s ability to buy US farms. As part of broader efforts to reduce reliance on the United States and amid worsening ties between China and Western countries, Beijing has in recent years sought to diversify its food and fertiliser import sources via a “Food Silk Road”. This strategy, using different import countries, trade routes and a variety of food products and crops, aims to avoid reliance on a single country or region while also meeting the growing demands of China’s expanding urban middle class.
Beijing aims to diversify its food imports from Africa and Latin America through free trade agreements among other measures. In recent years, China, as part of efforts to implement Xi’s promise to increase non-resource imports from Africa, has imported growing quantities of agricultural products such as avocados, cashews and soybean. In 2021, China was the second-largest destination for African agricultural exports, behind the European Union, and Chinese imports from Africa rose 18.2 per cent year on year in 2021.
Also, during the 2021 Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, Xi proposed the establishment of China-Africa “green lanes” to speed up inspection and quarantine and the waiver of certain tariffs so that imports could hit US$300 billion by 2025. Under this arrangement, provinces such as Zhejiang and Guangdong have passed bills to create an Africa-focused free-trade zone, construct a railway-sea transport link between Hunan and Guangdong, and develop connections to major African airports and ports.
In Latin America, the scale of land under property or rented by Chinese companies in the region, often reported as “land grabs”, is estimated at somewhere between 300,000 and one million hectares. In Argentina, for instance, a plan has been proposed for China to build 25 industrial “pork plants”. The expected annual production, once all farms are built, is estimated at 900,000 tonnes of pork, which would generate US$2.5 billion in annual exports. However, the project has also received criticism from social and environmental groups who argue that the proposed volume of pork production will result in unprecedented levels of water and soil pollution in Argentina.
China has also signed more than 100 agricultural cooperation agreements with Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) countries, including in Central Asia and Eastern Europe, which have been identified as viable alternatives for imports such as wheat, corn and soybeans. China, the world’s largest corn importer, had to import 28.35 million metric tonnes of the staple in 2021, up 152 per cent from 2020. The imported corn represented 9.4 per cent of domestic corn consumption. Most imports came from the United States, Ukraine and Brazil, with Ukrainian imports accounting for a third of the total amount. As a result, China’s Food Silk Road is creating new food trade routes between China, Europe, Russia, Central Asia and South Asia, as well as the Middle East and Africa.
At the same time, the Chinese central authorities have demonstrated growing interest in shaping food governance. In its 2019 Food Security in China white paper, Beijing stated that it would actively engage in international and regional food security governance. Domestically, in response to food safety concerns and scandals, China is seeking to improve national food safety standards. In 2022, the country’s National Health Commission announced the issuance of 36 new National Food Safety Standards. The election of Qu Dongyu, China’s former vice-minister of agriculture and rural affairs, as Director-General of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, saw him become the first Chinese national to serve in this post. Additionally, China has pledged an extra US$50 million to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) China South-South Cooperation Trust Fund as well as proposed numerous food-related measures under the Global Development Initiative Framework.
Beijing is aware that safeguarding food supplies amid external geopolitical uncertainties and climate shocks is essential to maintaining the legitimacy of Chinese Communist Party rule. This global agricultural diversification strategy not only helps Beijing avoid a “Malacca Dilemma” in relation to global maritime chokepoints but also allows China to increase its control over all stages of its global food supply chains.