China Is Hoarding Commodities

The Russia–Ukraine war is strengthening China's economic power
March 4, 2022 Updated: March 11, 2022

News Analysis

America and Europe surprised Chinese and Russian bankers. In retaliation against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, they froze about $630 billion worth of Russian foreign reserves on Feb. 26.

Moscow suddenly couldn’t utilize the hard currency reserves it thought it possessed. It likely planned to use the billions to defend the ruble on international markets. Instead, the ruble fell about 30 percent against the dollar on Feb. 28.

Beijing is taking notice. Confronted with the potential lack of value of its $3.2 trillion worth of foreign exchange reserves, the regime is quietly offloading dollars by purchasing assets globally, including most recently through an energy and commodities push.

Driven by compounding geopolitical instability from the Russian invasion, sanctions over the Uyghur genocide, pandemic supply chain dislocations, trade disruptions in the Black Sea, the Australia trade spat, and skyrocketing maritime freight costs, Beijing is acquiring critical commodities such as oil, gas, iron ore, wheat, barley, corn, and gold.

Epoch Times Photo
Gold coins during an exhibition in Lenzburg, Switzerland, on Nov. 16, 2014. China is getting as much gold as it can get its hands on as well. (Steffen Schmidt/AP Photo)

Price appears to be of little relative concern to state-owned buyers purchasing materials to prepare for increasing expected commodity scarcities. Many commodities are already jumping in price over the past few days by 3 percent to 8 percent due to the war. Sanctions on potash from Belarus pushed China to pay 139 percent more for the fertilizer ingredient, now sourced from Israel and Canada.

On the other hand, the war sometimes helps China’s competitive position. With Russia’s new pariah status, Beijing has the bargaining power to denominate commodities contracts with Russia in its own currency, the yuan. Dollar and euro-trades with Russia are now increasingly illegal due to international sanctions over the war, so China’s banks happily comply by shifting to the yuan. Russia has few other places to sell energy, so Beijing enjoys a buyer’s market.

China previously purchased about 1 percent of its coal from Russia (about 30 million tons), for example, but if the Ukraine invasion continues, Russia will be forced by sanctions to attempt to shift 38 percent of its coal exports (about 76 million tons) from Europe and Ukraine to Asian markets.

But two of China’s largest state-owned banks now limit foreign currency loans for the purchase of Russian commodities. The offshore unit of the Industrial & Commercial Bank of China Ltd., for example, stopped the issuance of U.S. dollar-denominated letters of credit for the purchase of Russian raw materials. However, yuan-denominated credit is still provided to some clients.

China purchases approximately $60 billion of energy annually from Russia. Chinese steelmakers and power plants, which normally import extensive quantities of coal from Russia, are looking for alternative suppliers, as their bankers advise halting purchases due to the risk of secondary sanctions against China.

China’s increased purchases of grain and soybeans put upward pressure on world prices, which are now becoming unaffordable to the world’s poor. As reported by Bloomberg on March 3, China imported $34 billion in agricultural products from the United States in 2021.

Since November, in part as a result of what a December Nikkei report calls the regime’s “hoarding,” the price of soybeans increased almost 50 percent. Grain exports from Russia and Ukraine have ground to a halt because of the war and sanctions, increasing prices even more.

China, which has about 18 percent of the globe’s population, has stockpiled over half of the world’s grains, increasing prices so much that it’s “dropping more countries into famine,” according to Nikkei. While the rest of the world descends into war and chaos, China has wheat stockpiles for a year and a half, an official at China’s National Food and Strategic Reserves Administration told reporters.

China is buying not just foodstuffs, but also entire companies, including a European meat processor in 2021 and a leading dairy in New Zealand in 2019. Between 2020 and 2021, the United Nation’s food price index increased 30 percent.

The Beijing regime is also a gold bug. It mines much of its own, and purchases more on international markets. While officially Beijing holds 1,948 tons of the precious yellow metal, most analysts estimate reserves of between 10,000 and 30,000 tons, well above U.S. reserves of 8,133 tons. With so much gold, China could in the future back the yuan with gold, displacing the nonbacked U.S. dollar.

China needs food and commodities for its economy, as do all countries. Its demand is a pull factor for more supply to emerge, which means more jobs globally. But China’s approach is unscrupulously competitive, deceitful, and authoritarian, including through attempts at stealing natural resources and monopolizing the scarcest commodities, for example.

If the world allows the regime to continue down its unethical path of self-aggrandizement, we do so at our own future peril.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Anders Corr
Anders Corr has a bachelor's/master's in political science from Yale University (2001) and a doctorate in government from Harvard University (2008). He is a principal at Corr Analytics Inc., publisher of the Journal of Political Risk, and has conducted extensive research in North America, Europe, and Asia. His latest books are “The Concentration of Power: Institutionalization, Hierarchy, and Hegemony” (2021) and “Great Powers, Grand Strategies: the New Game in the South China Sea" (2018).