China’s war chest: Beijing seeks to remedy its vulnerability to food and energy embargoes

Not much could unite Peng Lifa, the activist who disappeared after staging a rare anti-lockdown protest in Beijing last year, and Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader who Peng was criticising. But in October 2022, both men diagnosed the same vulnerability in China: food. “We want food, not PCR tests,” read Peng’s bright red characters, emblazoned on a banner hung over Beijing’s Sitong Bridge on 13 October. Three days later, Xi gave a speech to the Chinese Communist party (CCP) about how to “hold high the great banner of Socialism with Chinese characteristics”. “We must reinforce the foundations for food security on all fronts,” China’s president said.  If China’s economy is to withstand a military conflict with Taiwan, and the inevitable sanctions that such an attack would trigger, it needs to ensure a stable supply of energy. That means fuel for the economy, as well as for the citizens who power it.

Ensuring that China’s population has enough food has plagued every leader since the imperial dynasties. The country is home to one-fifth of the world’s population but only 7% of its arable land and as the population has urbanised, diets have shifted and the number of farmers has declined. That has left China increasingly reliant on imports to fill its 1.4 billion stomachs. If, in the event of a conflict with Taiwan, China enters a wartime economy, then ensuring a stable food supply will be vital for China’s leaders. Beijing is already trying to reduce its reliance on strategic rivals. Chinese orders for US corn in 2022-2023 are down 70% on the previous year, according to the US department of agriculture. Instead, China is relying on friendlier countries such as Brazil, which delivered its first vessel of corn to China’s shores in January. Last year China agreed to waive some pest and disease checks in order to expedite the Brazilian imports.

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China, food shortage, energy