China is seeking a more influential and assertive role in global agriculture and is making agriculture part of broader geopolitical initiatives in its new era of "agricultural diplomacy" under Chairman Xi Jinping. Is China ready for this role? Is the world ready for China?
The strategy was laid out in "Our Country's Agricultural Diplomacy Enters a New Era,"a December 26, 2017 propaganda essay by Farmers Daily propagandists. The writers expounded on the more prominent role given to agriculture in foreign affairs since Xi Jinping ascended to the top leadership position five years ago.
The article recites "Chairman" Xi's slogans that proclaim China as now open to the outside world. It cites key international meetings where agriculture was emphasized, with special emphasis on Xi's kick-off of the One Belt One Road initiative during a 2013 summit with Kazakhstan's president.
The "clear message" proclaimed by the article is that China is greatly increasing its voice and influence in global agriculture, and China’s international cooperation in agriculture is growing faster, deeper, and stronger than ever before. As Xi's leadership moves into a new phase in his second term, Chinese diplomats and agribusinesses will go abroad and host international meetings and trade shows to "tell an even more vivid story."
"Agricultural diplomacy" is a broad concept that includes China's growing trade in agricultural products, free trade agreements, foreign investment in agribusiness, foreign aid, technical exchanges, China's role in rule-setting and international organizations, and promoting Chinese cultural heritage in farming. The idea of "farm diplomacy" was floated by Xinhua News Service propagandists describing Xi's trip to Latin America in 2014 but it vanished until mentioned in last month's Farmers Daily article. "Agricultural diplomacy" as described by Farmers Daily is a broader initiative based on guiding principles of open trade, mutually beneficial development, and links between farming, industry and services guide the growing collaboration with foreign countries in agriculture.
China envisions a leadership role in global agricultural governance, including an active role in international organizations, in making the rules for agriculture, and in trade negotiations. The article cites recent international meetings of agricultural ministers held by international organizations APEC, G20, ASEAN and BRICS where China purportedly played a leading role. At the 2016 G20 held in Xi'an, attendees were invited to support China's "grand plan for international cooperation."
China is seeking a more active role in international rule-making bodies like the Codex Alimentarius, OIE, and International Plant Protection Convention. China is overhauling its own standards for foods, farm products, and pesticide residues.
China wants to push for more "fair and rational" agricultural trade rules by engaging in negotiations on items like agricultural and fishery subsidies and concluding bilateral and multilateral trade agreements. By establishing the basic principles for negotiations, Chinese industries will have "more time and space" for development and further deepen relations with countries along the "belt and road" path. China plans to coordinate its agricultural trade policy and make use of trade remedy measures like anti-dumping duties and safeguard measures against distillers grains and sugar.
In another signature Xi Jinping initiative, China is pushing other countries to recognize its agricultural heritage and culture. China claims a leading role in the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization protection of agricultural heritage, with a third of the items accepted for protection so far.
Over the past 5 years, "the Chinese dream, Chinese programs, and Chinese thinking were accepted by the international community," the propagandists wrote.
Drawing another subtle link between Chairmen Xi and Mao, "agricultural diplomacy" has a major objective of re-establishing China as a leader in "south-south" cooperation, as a leader of the developing world. The article recites China's contributions to FAO "south-south" development programs, 3 million tonnes of food aid to Africa, and thousands of trainings and scholarships for agricultural technicians and scholars.
Technical assistance in agriculture is cited as a diplomatic tool for boosting China's reputation and responsibility abroad. "Agricultural experts have become true practitioners of the philosophy of sincere and true diplomacy," telling the "beautiful China story," Farmers Daily said. Examples of China's beneficial impact on African agriculture are "too numerous to mention."
China is bringing in technology and purportedly sharing it. Farmers Daily cites the establishment of the Asia-Pacific international potato research center in Beijing's Yanqing County as a significant milestone showing China's leading role in the international scientific community (This explains why China declared potatoes a staple food several years ago). The potato center is described as a model platform for international cooperation in agricultural research with advanced equipment and personnel. Farmers Daily also cites a China-Germany agricultural research center and 62 laboratories established with the United States and Canada. By hosting scientists and meetings, bringing in equipment and plant resources, China is shrinking the gap between China and developed countries in agricultural science.
One problem: China doesn't have very many diplomats to carry out "agricultural diplomacy." To address this problem, there are inter-departmental working groups on agricultural cooperation, training for staff to work in agribusiness and as diplomats specializing in agriculture, "foreign agricultural cooperation demonstration districts," and "agricultural external opening cooperation pilot districts" to help companies begin doing business overseas.
In the background of all this is China's ambitions to elevate its model of what might be called "centrally planned free trade" as an alternative to the post-WWII Anglo-American dominance of trade institutions. Can a country that has been characterized by insularity for at least two centuries become a world leader? Can a country where rules are customarily flouted and skirted in everyday life seriously become an international rule- and standard-maker? Can a country where leaders collect advanced degrees based on ghost-written doctoral theses and a country where slogans pass as "theories" become a leader in agricultural science?
It appears that we have the beginning of a grand social experiment that may answer these questions later in this century.