Significance of China-Russia food security cooperation goes beyond bilateral
Published: Oct 24, 2023 06:19 PM
Illustration: Liu Xidan/Global Times

Illustration: Liu Xidan/Global Times

When Russian President Vladimir Putin was on his way to Beijing earlier this month, many observers predicted that he would return to Moscow with yet another energy mega-deal in his pocket. However, the most spectacular accomplishment of the Russia-China bilateral dialogue on the margins of the third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation was different. The two sides agreed to significantly increase Russia's agricultural exports to China - within the next 12 years, these exports are likely to amount to $25 billion. 

$25 billion is a significant, if not a staggering, figure. However, this new arrangement is something more than just a move toward diversifying bilateral trade between the two neighboring countries; it is also about building a new foundation for the overall relationship. The growing middle class in China does and will demand more and more quality food products, which opens a window of opportunity for potential foreign suppliers, including Russia. 

China is the largest food importer in the world. It appears that the Chinese side would welcome a deeper engagement with Russia in agriculture. On the eve of President Putin's trip to Beijing, China made an important decision to lift restrictions on Russian pork - something that Russia's meat exporters had been waiting for since the beginning of the century. Another major step would be to lift or ease existing restrictions on the import of Russian wheat, which would also give a major push to Russia's food export to the Middle Kingdom. 

Russia's agriculture is booming these days, so is the country's food export which increased more than five times over the last 12 years. However, today the overall share of China counts for only one-ninth of the total Russian food export ($5.1 billion out of $41.6 billion). To move from $5 billion to $25 billion is an ambitious, but not an unattainable goal.

Russian vegetable oil, fish and seafood, along with dairy products and candies, are already well-known in China. The most challenging task is to increase Russia's share in China's soybean market, which constitutes more than a quarter of the overall Chinese food imports. Annually, Russia sells 1 million tons of soybeans to China. This might look like an impressive figure, but it constitutes only 1 percent of China's overall annual soybean imports.

Needless to say, this cooperation should not be a one-way street. China could increase exports of modern agricultural machinery and food processing equipment to Russia. Chinese cuisine is as popular in Russia as it is in any other place in the world, and opportunities for Chinese catering in Russia are very broad. Cooperation in agriculture, food processing, packaging, transportation and catering involves a lot of small and medium-size businesses, which propels not only economic growth, but also fosters social and human interaction. Arguably, this type of cooperation has a greater impact on social and human interaction compared to cooperation in the energy or defense sectors.

An extended partnership in agriculture will undoubtedly have a transformative impact on transborder logistics and transportation as well. Today, most of Russia's food exports go through terminals in the Black Sea and Sea of Azov ports, making the transpiration routes to China quite extended, not to mention the security risks involved. The new land grain corridor to China, when completed, is going to become a powerful booster for the economic and social development of rural areas in the East of Russia.

All these direct benefits notwithstanding, the China-Russia food cooperation should not be constrained to bilateral trade or cross-border investments only. After all, neither nation faces a prospect of critical food shortages: Russia experienced its last famine in the early 1930s, China - in the early 1960s. Many countries of the Global South are still facing this disaster or may face it at any moment in the future. Moscow and Beijing could and should address the fundamental problem of global security, which is likely to become one of the most important global challenges of the 21st century. 

It is easy to predict that with climate changes taking speed, the food problem will become more acute in various corners of our planet. To start with, Moscow and Beijing could focus on strengthening food security in regions of their common neighborhood - like Central Asia and Afghanistan, as well as in the poorest counties of South Asia and the African Horn. 

Russia and China could work together on these and other food security matters. They could also promote the food agenda within FAO, UNDP, BRICS, SCO and other multilateral bodies of which they are members. This would be a significant contribution to the global commons that the whole international community can benefit from. Moreover, an innovative Chinese-Russian strategic approach to food security would be an important dimension of the emerging world order that both Moscow and Beijing are trying to promote. 

The author is the Academic Director of the Russian International Affairs Council. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn