“Within a span of 20 years, the country’s food self-sufficiency ratio has fallen from around 100 per cent in 2000 to 76 per cent in 2020.”
So Xi is working to reverse the trend. “China must be able to feed its people on our own. We will fall under others’ control if we can’t hold our rice bowl steady.”
In the process, officials dictate that land must be converted from other uses into farmland. Forests but also shops, factory sites, parks and apartment blocks are being bulldozed to make new farms for growing soybeans and corn.
When the Financial Times sent a reporter to look at more than a dozen fields of such newly converted farmland in the south-western Chinese city of Chengdu last month, the results were not impressive: “Crops were often sparsely scattered and weeds were everywhere,” wrote Sun Yu. The reporter quoted an unnamed local official as saying: “We reclaim these plots to send a signal that we care about food security. Output is not a priority.”
In other words, it’s signalling political loyalty to the leader rather than actually improving China’s food self-sufficiency. This is reminiscent of Mao’s Great Leap Forward in the 1950s. Designed as an epochal advance in China’s agriculture, frenzied demonstrations of political loyalty to Mao produced shocking famine instead.
The lesson of history is that the only true source of food security is not self-sufficiency but open international trade. Compare North Korea’s experience with South Korea’s. The North’s Kim dynasty doggedly pursues a policy of juche, or self-reliance. Result? Recurring famines. The South trades with the world and has more than it could possibly want.
Xi is overlooking this hard-won lesson from China’s own experience. It only makes sense if, indeed, we are about to experience an “extreme scenario”. Australian analyst Ross Babbage of the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington explains why: “The US and its allies are in a strong position to dominate the rimlands of the Eurasian landmass and, in any serious war, interdict most shipping and many aviation movements to and from China,” he writes in his new book, The Next Major War: Can the US and its Allies Win Against China?
Beijing is not the only capital accelerating preparations for conflict. After decades of selling weapons to Taiwan, the US most recently has started to just hand them over.
In July, the Biden administration said that it was sending military hardware valued at up to $US345 million to Taiwan directly from Pentagon stores under something called the Presidential Drawdown Authority. It’s the first time the US has used this method to arm Taiwan.
The reason? Urgency. The customary method requires protracted Congressional procedures and can take years. “Without question, bolstering Taiwan’s self-defences is an urgent task and an essential feature of deterrence,” a senior Pentagon official, Ely Ratner, has said.
Last year, the outgoing chief of US Indo-Pacific Command, Philip Davidson, said war over Taiwan was possible by 2027. Xi Jinping reportedly has told his own military leadership to be ready for combat by the same deadline.
As Xi was finishing his tour of rice paddies and preparing for “extreme scenarios”, the chair of the East Asia Summit brought proceedings to a close with a plea to all the leaders present to ease regional tensions: “I can guarantee you,” said Indonesian President Joko Widodo, “that if we are not able to manage differences, we will be destroyed.”
Neither Xi Jinping nor Joe Biden was there to hear him.
Peter Hartcher is international editor.
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