Interregional trade can potentially extend the management of scarce resources beyond a region's territory along supply chains. Here we combined the multiregional input-output model with structural decomposition analysis to reveal the distant connections of agricultural land and water use as well as the drivers behind their variations in China. Our results show that trade-embodied agricultural land use increase by 2.3-fold and 2.5-fold for virtual agricultural water use flows from 2002 to 2012. The water-starved northern China with abundant agricultural land is the main exporter of virtual (also called trade-embodied) agricultural land and water. Moreover, the role of the virtual water use importers and exporters were determined by the availability of land, rather than water resources. Based on scenario analysis, we found that if agricultural water use efficiency of north China reached the world's top-level but agricultural land use efficiency remained unchanged, the virtual water flows would be reduced by 32% and only water resources, not agricultural land, would be able to sustain future economic development. Our findings may provide significant information for potential solutions to China's regional water shortage from a land-water nexus perspective.