Hawkish China policy must be fought

The author argues that using Canada’s Parliament to litigate China’s human rights record in Xinjiang province is not in the larger interest of Canadian farmers, who should tell politicians to dial back the rhetoric. | Reuters photo

On Feb. 22, the Canadian Parliament approved Michael Chong’s opposition motion accusing China of genocide in its western Xinjiang province.

Canadian farmers do not want to go down this road.

The problem is not just that charges of genocide and forced labour in Xinjiang have scant proof to back them up. The Xinjiang issue is all about something readers know well — agriculture.

Xinjiang produced a quarter of the world’s tomatoes in 2020 on about 12 million acres of land. Xinjiang is Asia’s largest tomato processing base and accounts for 70 percent of China’s tomato exports. Xinjiang also produces about 80 percent of China’s cotton.

Xinjiang is no longer a frontier province. It is the gateway to China’s Belt and Road initiative and, increasingly, a production centre in a global agricultural industry.

Claims of genocide and forced labour are casting a curse on an industry that we protect too, agriculture.

Both Canada and Australia are resource-dependent, export-based economies, both have taken on China, and both have felt China’s wrath directed at their agricultural exports.

China revoked the registration of canola exporters Richardson and Viterra in 2019 and imposed an 80.5 percent punitive tariff on Australian barley in 2020.

Geopolitical standoffs can end in a variety of ways, but farmers are almost always the losers.

Farmers lose not just because powerful countries use administrative barriers to incoming goods as a way of teaching their adversaries a lesson.

In reality, Canada’s agricultural exports to China will never dry up, and neither will Australia’s. China is starting to import large volumes of Canadian barley for China’s swine industry. Australia shipped 800,000 tonnes of wheat to China in December 2020.

The issue is this: Canadian producers do not want to rely on China’s table scraps.

To some extent, the global agricultural system is going to revolve around China. Consider this — in 2019, China’s main agricultural province, Shandong, exported $24 billion worth of agricultural products, 20 percent more than all of Canada for the same period.

China’s success in the agriculture sector to a large measure owes itself to flows of containers in highly automated ports. COSCO (along with its subsidiary OOCL), the world’s third-biggest ocean carrier, holds investments in 61 global port terminals, sometimes in concert with port-operator China Merchants, which manages 36 ports in 18 countries. Meanwhile, a very high percentage of China’s containers are moved on China’s vessels. This gives China the ability to closely control the flow of containers to and from China. Look at what is happening in Brazil.

In 2019, Brazilian exports to China of soybeans, beef, pork and chicken had spiked, increasingly making Brazil look like China’s food basket. COSCO reconfigured its services, adding three ships to its routes to South America route and increasing its share of the trade. Only the year before, China Merchants Port Holdings bought 90 percent of Terminal de Conteineres de Paranagua (TCP) in the southern state of Parana, a major chicken export port.

As well, China has turned its attention to rail infrastructure. The China Communication Construction Co. recently committed billions of dollars to construct a 1,312 kilometre railway to move ore and grain from southern Pará state to the Barcarena port at the Amazon River estuary.

China’s infrastructure projects in Brazil are controversial because of Indigenous rights, environmental regulation, and debt dependency. But one thing is indisputable: China turned Brazil into an agricultural superpower, first by buying soybeans and then by investing in logistics infrastructure.

The future vitality of Canada’s agriculture sector could eventually depend on Chinese investment.

Using Canada’s Parliament to litigate China’s human rights record in Xinjiang province is not in the larger interest of Canadian farmers. Farmers should tell politicians to dial back the rhetoric.

Paul Sinclair is an associate professor in the University of Regina’s faculty of business administration.

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