Does China’s ‘going out’ strategy prefigure a new food regime?


China’s new Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is commanding attention, in this moment of international disorder, as a global strategy reflecting its growing political-economic power. This essay offers a ‘food regime’ lens on these developments. There are two, related, dimensions: the first concerns how China is addressing future food security requirements, via domestic and international food provisioning; and the second situates China’s recent ‘going out’ policy with respect to global food regime transitioning.


China’s new Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is commanding attention, in this moment of substantial international disorder, as a global strategy reflecting its growing political economic power. This essay offers a ‘food regime’ lens on these developments. There are two dimensions: the first concerns how China is deploying BRI-based infrastructures and agri-food supply chains to complement its domestic food production, and the second considers whether and to what extent China’s related ‘going out’ policy and practice expresses food regime reconfiguration.

Corporate agri-food monopoly power on a global scale is currently intensifying, with Chinese participation. China’s engagement with the global food regime parallels and yet challenges such power, deploying forms of neo-mercantilism in a seemingly paradoxical relationship with neoliberal ‘market rule.’ This tension is examined here as central to ongoing global political-economic reorganizations. Not only is China building an alternative world-scale network of diplomatic, institutional, economic and technological relations to those established historically by western powers, but also a reconfigured nexus of corporate food production and circulation relations is emerging, abetted by China’s reformulation of the so-called ‘public-private partnership,’ with deepening food regime effect.

At the same time, a world ecological sensibility is taking root, as climate crisis reveals itself in natural disasters threatening human habitats, growing species extinctions, planetary boundary crossings, and deepening ecosystems degradation,1 with the acceleration of resource grabbing and deforestation, and as arable land surrenders to chemical agriculture.2

The international peasant movement, La Via Campesina (LVC), publicly addressed this concern at the 1996 World Food Summit, in calling for ‘food sovereignty.’ This intervention politicized the claim that liberalization of agricultural trade, privileging transnational agribusiness, would ‘feed the world.’ LVC maintained that global enclosure of food systems in a massive project of commodification, licensed by the WTO’s Agreement on Agriculture, violated national and extant farming system cultures’ sovereignty. A quarter century later, punctuated by the UN Millennium Assessment (2005) and the IAASTD Report (2008), the EAT-Lancet Commission on Healthy Diets from Sustainable Food Systems reported: ‘Global food production threatens climate stability and ecosystem resilience and constitutes the single largest driver of environmental degradation and transgression of planetary boundaries. Taken together the outcome is dire. A radical transformation of the global food system is urgently needed’ (2019). This followed the Inter-Academy Partnership (130 national academies of science and medicine), declaring a ‘broken global food system’ (The Guardian, 28 November, 2018), noting attention is turning to extant agroecological farming systems geared to regeneration of natural cycles and diversity. The Committee on World Food Security (CFS), the only UN agency actively including civil society organizations representing front-line agrarian, fishing, pastoral, indigenous and forest-dweller interests, is now formulating policy regarding the potential of agroecology and the stewardship of small/family/peasant farming (2019).

Whether the PRC, with its rhetoric of ‘harmonious coexistence between humanity and nature’ and massive peasant sector, will nurture ecologically-based farming systems at home and abroad remains to be seen given its current strategy of ‘agricultural modernization.’ Domestically, in 1999 the PRC launched a ‘Grain for Green’ program, with an investment, so far, of over USD 40 million, including direct payments to more than 32 million rural households, and restoring forest landscapes of over 28 million hectares of farmland, ‘pay[ing] farmers to plant trees on their land and provid[ing] degraded land to rural families to restore’ (Dayne 2017). And internationally, in a timely gesture, the state-owned Chinatex Corporation and China National Cereals, Oils and Foodstuffs Corporation (COFCO) plans to invest in long-term restoration of up to 25 million hectares of degraded Brazilian land to expand soy production, rather than driving further destruction of the Amazon (Araújo 2019).

This essay explores these developments, taking note of particular engagements (both participatory and transformative) as China feels its way into the global food order with an eye simultaneously on immediate and future food security needs. A key turning point was perhaps in 2008, when ‘China’s globalization was still “classic” – dominated by its trade account [as the] familiar quality of China’s development3 … But since 2008, as China’s breakneck modernization continued, it had become ever more integrated in financial terms’ (Tooze 2018, 603). In addition to the PRC’s contribution to stabilizing the 2008 financial crisis, this includes financial investment in agribusinesses as well as enabling international infrastructures.

The transition is palpable – as corporate capture in the global food system peaked in 2015, centralizing market power in each segment of the industrial food chain (ETC Group 2018a, 4), although this was old news: ‘the bête noires of the food chain used to be Monsanto at one end and Walmart at the other’ (ETC Group 2018a, 5) – across these several agribusiness mergers were speculative investments by asset managers, BlackRock, the Carlyle Group, and half a dozen other top asset management companies.4 The emergence of such new food regime relations corresponds to the restructuring of trade, by financial, relations. And it underscores China’s particular capacity to ‘go out,’ and indeed challenge western capitalism on its own terms.5

The world faces some kind of tipping point, with previous food regime legacies increasingly dysfunctional. Both the settler agro-export model, and the mid-twentieth century ‘development project’ of industrialization with ‘unlimited supplies of [rural] labour’ and ‘long green revolution’ technification,6 have reached their social and ecological limits. This opens possibility for a different trajectory, restoring smaller-scale labor-intensive ecological farming, as a survival mechanism – for states, (subsidized) rural populations, and human and planetary health. It remains to be seen how this new moment will unfold.

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