Piracy, Food Security, and Global Supply Lines

I've just landed in Washington DC for a biosecurity meeting -- a chat about how not to get caught with our pants down.  Catching up on the news in my hotel room, I notice that over at Danger Room Adam Rawnsley is reporting that the Chinese are talking tough about "crashing" the land bases of pirates in Africa.

With regards to biosecurity, and its extension into other security matters -- food security, in this case -- I've been expecting China to get more aggressive on pirates.  And this is just the beginning.  China's food demand is skyrocketing as incomes rise, and much of that food is going to come from overseas (see my previous post "More on China's Economy, Food Production, and Food Demand").  The Economist recently estimated that of the approximately 80 million hectares of land deals in developing countries in the last decade -- "more than the area of farmland of Britain, France, Germany and Italy combined" -- two-thirds were by Chinese companies.  A very good guess is that a substantial fraction of the other one-third were made by countries or companies who hope to sell to the Chinese.

The motivation for this land rush is simple: despite plans by the Chinese government, it is highly unlikely that the country will be able to maintain "food independence" -- the ability to feed its population with domestic supplies.  So China's critical supply lines for food and other raw materials are going global, and those shipping lines often pass through waters off eastern Africa -- prime pirate waters.  Chinese shipping is also at threat in the Straight of Malacca.

It is thus no surprise that China is getting serious about piracy.  The U.S. should expect the Chinese Navy to be more active around the world, and we should expect more investment by the Chinese government in the ability to protect global supply lines.  We should also not overreact to this situation.  We know that it is coming, and everyone should be paying attention, in part so that there are no misunderstandings.  The U.S. Navy, among others, should get its ducks (and, admirals, and carriers, etc) in a row now in the form of real engagement with the Chinese Navy.  This is an opportunity for more cooperation.

Increasing demand for food will create more situations like this in coming years.  The security of all countries depends on getting this right, and not getting caught with our pants down.