Filling China's Wok

A historic moment slipped quietly below the news radar this week. The world's most populous nation, one that used to pride itself on being self-sufficient in food, acknowledged its first agricultural trade deficit.

China, in other words, eats more than it grows.

And that doesn't just mean more Kansas wheat in Shanghai's noodles. Rather, a country with one-fifth of humanity has now become highly dependent on the goodwill of other nations to feed it, and will act differently on the global stage to defend those vital food lines.

So far, Beijing has wooed more and more food-exporting nations with free-trade pacts. But it's also building up an oceangoing navy to ensure it can protect its interests in global commodity markets like grain.

China's grain harvests have generally fallen in the past five years, a trend its leaders are rapidly trying to reverse with free-market policies and subsidies to farmers. Its peasants, all 800 million of them, haven't seen their incomes keep pace with the nation's rapid urban and industrial growth, creating the rural unrest that is Beijing's biggest worry.

A country that's tried to feed 1.3 billion people with only 7 percent of the world's arable land now needs foreign help, both for imports but also to raise its agricultural productivity.

China's nearly 400 million farmers produce as much as 2 million American farmers. And much of its farmland is being lost because of water shortages, growing cities, expanding deserts, and pollution.

Yet nations with food surpluses, while eager to export to China, must think twice before using food as a diplomatic weapon against Beijing. Even a suggestion of that will push China to go faster in trying to become a superpower, and perhaps a global bully.

China's ambitions to be an expansionist power are already clear. To protect its new appetite for imported energy, for instance, it has sent troops to Sudan to defend large Chinese oil investments in that war-torn African nation.

The world is waking up only slowly to the impact of China's giant and growing economy. In food purchases, for instance, 1 percent of grain consumption in China equals 2 percent of global grain trade. Since China's net grain exports are expected to more than triple in the next 15 years, the global grain market will need massive adjustments.

China's older leaders still have memories of famine in the 1950s. They won't jeopardize Communist Party rule in maintaining food security. The rest of the world must be alert as China's burgeoning appetite for food forces big changes.

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