The Agricultural Belt and Road: New Geo-Political and Resource Landscapes?

In 2017, the PRC Ministry of Agriculture, National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Ministry of Commerce jointly released policy guidance for a new issue stream within the Belt and Road Initative (BRI) framework: the “Visions and Actions Plan on Jointly Promoting Agricultural Cooperation on the Belt and Road.” Much of western analyses of the BRI have theretofore tended to focus on big ticket items such as China’s overseas infrastructural, energy, and logistics projects, and the geopolitical re-arrangements that these ‘connectivity’ projects have or will engender. But though the sphere of agriculture has heretofore received very little attention in BRI analyses, this new Chinese vision of an Agricultural Belt and Road raises important questions regarding China’s role and impact in global, regional, and local agricultural resource markets.

‘Agricultural cooperation’ of course consists of a wide range of activities, including development projects, technical assistance, technology transfers, scientific exchanges, demonstration centers, and humanitarian assistance in partner countries. Among the most politically sensitive and controversial of these, however, has been Chinese foreign investments and crop production schemes, through inter alia the acquisition of overseas agricultural land. Such acquisitions sometimes sensationally headlined in Western analyses as “land grabbing,” have led to significant societal and political unrest in various BRI-participating countries, and have more generally re-stimulated perennial concerns abroad China’s growing appetite for increasingly scarce natural resources.

This paper first critically examines the narrative and reality of China’s growing agricultural footprint abroad, using as well as problematizing both Western and Chinese sources and statistical data. It finds that in contrast to alarmist accounts, the bulk of Chinese overseas agricultural investments are relatively dispersed; are driven by relatively small- to medium-scale private enterprises rather than state-directed national champions such as COFCO; are profit-oriented rather than national food security-motivated; and with fairly limited production tonnage being exported back to the domestic Chinese market. Such dynamics are of course shifting, in light of the BRI and new opportunities, but as well due to new geo-economic conditions such as increased protectionism among a number of destination countries.

Far from viewing ‘the BRI’ as a critical juncture, the paper argues that the scale, scope, and modalities of its overseas agricultural activities must be situated in the longer trajectory of China’s “Agricultural Going Out” (农业走出去), which has been taking shape since the early 2000s. The BRI may, in other words, considered more Kingdon (1984) refers to as a ‘window of opportunity’ for private and public actors within China to push for greater policy and institutional support for what has been and still remains a highly fragmented, de-centralized, and poorly coordinated sector for outbound investment.

Secondly, I examine what sorts of implications these investment patterns and trajectories may have for host-nation sustainable economic development, food security, and agrarian change. For this, two preliminary case studies of Chinese agricultural investment and trade in Kazakhstan and Ukraine, will be presented. Overall the paper points to the need for more nuanced, sectoral- as well as actor-specific stocktaking of the realities rather than the rhetoric of ‘the BRI’; to consider both continuity as well as evolution in China’s outwards investment models; and to be more context-specific when considering the implications of the BRI for participating and non-participating countries, and appropriate policy responses.

Written by: Zhou Jiayi (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute)

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