China Land Grab Worldwide

Building artificial islands on reefs in the South China Sea and the creeping encroachment in Ladakh, Bhutan, Nepal and Mongolia are not the only tricks in the bag for China’s expansionism. These are limited to areas adjacent to China’s international borders. Simultaneously, China is expanding deep inside other nations, far away from its borders and sometimes across continents and oceans. With the largest foreign reserves of any nation in the world, China can afford to buy what it wants. There was a time when national power and prestige were more important than wealth and no nation would trade away the former for the latter. In recent times, however, mercantilism is driving foreign policy more than anything else. As long as the price is right, nations are willing to sell anything, even their land.

From 2008 till 2018, China’s economy grew at an unprecedented pace, rising from $4.5 trillion to almost $14 trillion. Its foreign reserves almost doubled in the first six years of that period. China, with 20 per cent of the world’s population and only 8 per cent of global cultivable area, saw its chance to acquire land in other countries for ensuring its food security. However, that goal soon became subservient to the desire of the new hegemon to penetrate every aspect of life in other nations, ranging from military strategy to educational and cultural penetration. Thus, while large tracts were bought for agriculture, strategically located smaller parcels gave China an opportunity to get an insider’s view of other countries. Meanwhile, other nations, even the mighty USA, counted their coins as the dragon crept in.

China is the biggest buyer of land in other countries, followed by the UK and the US. The last two are transparent democracies with frequent changes in the ruling party and hence, any long-term covert activity is not feasible. In China, on the other hand, the same communist party has ruled for the last 71 years with no possibility of a change in the near future. The recent exposés of China’s successful internal subversion in other countries leave no room for doubt about China’s goal of subverting democracies worldwide. Let us take the case of a small, peaceful democratic country, New Zealand (NZ). A Chinese company, Shanghai Pengxin has a 75 percent stake in a company, which owns 10,000 acres farmland in the NZ’s South Island and another 20,000 acres in the North Island. Then, in 2014, this company signed a deal to further buy more than 34,000 acres in the North Island. This caused a considerable disquiet and a leader of the farmers called it selling the “family silver”. In the face of strident opposition, the deal did not fructify.

The reasons for China focussing on possessing farmlands in this small Pacific nation lie in the highly questionable business ethos of China. In 2008, it was found that in China, infant formula and other baby foods were adulterated with industrial chemical melamine, which is used to make glues, laminates and tableware. The milk was diluted and the addition of this chemical, which contains nitrogen, gave it the appearance of protein-rich milk during tests. China is not known for speaking the truth about such scandals but it is estimated that 300,000 babies were affected some of whom died and others suffered long-term consequences like kidney damage. There was a domestic outcry against Chinese brands of baby food. Chinese tourists flocked to Australia and NZ to buy loads of baby formula. NZ is the largest exporter of dairy products. It is thus that China dairy companies tried to buy lands in this country. When that did not succeed beyond a point, they went for buying controlling stakes in NZ dairy companies. In 2019, China dairy company, Yili, acquired Westland, NZ’s second biggest dairy producer. Then, in September 2020, Chinese company Mengniu acquired Bellamy’s, Australia’s leading baby formula maker for $1 billion. Again, in November this year, the same state-owned Chinese company acquired Australia’s Lion Dairy and Drinks.

Chinese companies have been on a land-buying spree in Australia to augment food supplies as the rising middle class in China has caused a spurt in demand for high quality food. In 2015 and 2016, Chinese companies made repeated bids to acquire the largest ranch in the world, the Australian S. Kidman & Co. The government of Australia, however, did not approve these attempts. In spite of this setback, by 2017, China had become the largest foreign landowner in Australia.The land grab is not limited to farmlands. China owns an airport in Western Australia on a lease for 100 years, the port of Darwin for 99 years and a whopping 23 million acres of Australia’s land. It owns coalmines, wind farms and water supplies. As with other aspects of foreign relations, China’s acquisitions are not based on reciprocity. No foreign entity can buy land in China; in fact, even Chinese citizens and companies cannot buy land in China. All land is state-owned and is held by everyone else on lease that can be terminated at any time. Given the present state of the China-Australia relationship, perhaps it is time that Australia adopts China’s policy by terminating some of these leases of strategic assets.

Reports have recently emerged of Chinese companies acquiring large tracts of land near defence installations in the US and in Japan. Guanghui Energy Company owned by a retired officer of the Chinese army set up a subsidiary, GH America Energy, in the US and is in the process of setting up a wind farm next to Laughlin Air Force Base in Texas. The facility is used for pilots training, turning out 350 pilots every year. The idea seems to be to snoop on these defence activities while making inroads into the American electric grid in the bargain. Meanwhile, across the Pacific Ocean, a Chinese company has bought 20 acres of land merely 3 kilometres away from Japan’s Air Self-Defence Force’s Air Base in Hokkaido. These are just examples of the Chinese land acquisition which span over 33 countries that include the US, Canada, the UK, Japan, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and the UAE. Even the urban properties are on the Chinese radar with Forbes Magazine putting it dramatically, “Real estate agents with million dollar listings in New York, Miami and Los Angeles all have one thing in common: Chinese clients.”

What about India? Chinese citizens and companies cannot buy land in India without the approval of the Reserve Bank. Yet, we know that China allows its operatives to have a second passport. Once such operatives present themselves as citizens of a country not on the barred list, they can buy land without any approval. There does not appear to be much information on whether Chinese companies have acquired land in India using such gaps in the law. An analysis of such land purchases and their location may be useful in showing whether these are usual commercial transactions or whether strategic issues have played a part in such acquisitions. China’s aggressive policies do indicate the need for India and other democracies adopting policies based on reciprocity. Chinese companies and individuals should not be allowed to acquire freehold real estate in India because Indians are not allowed to buy properties in China with the same rights.

Source : Daily World

The writer RN Prasher is a retired IAS officer of Haryana cadre | Personal Opinions

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