China turns to durian diplomacy to boost ties with Southeast Asia

·5 min read

It is probably the most controversial fruit in the world, and haters often complain that it smells just like rotten onion or stinky eggs.

However, the durian, also known as the "king of fruit" to its fans, took centre stage in China's latest charm offensive towards Southeast Asia as Beijing pledged to import more the fruit from its neighbours in an effort to cement its ties with the strategically important region amid its intensifying rivalry with the US.

The fruit was given a special mention by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi during his recent visit to Kuala Lumpur.

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"This morning, we had a working lunch together and my dear friend served me the maoshanwang cake, which is so delicious and I am so impressed," Wang told a reporter at a joint press conference alongside his Malaysian counterpart Saifuddin Abdullah last Tuesday, referring to a cake made with a popular type of Malaysian durian.

Wang also said China was "ready to import more palm oil, tropical fruit and other agricultural products" from Malaysia.

A day later, in the southern Chinese city of Nanning, Wang was joined by Vietnam's deputy prime minister Pham Binh Minh, where the two sides announced an agreement to allow Vietnam's fresh durian to be exported to the Chinese market in the near future following nearly four years of negotiations.

Wang also said that China "attaches importance to Vietnam's interest in increasing exports of agricultural and fishery products to China", according to the Vietnamese foreign ministry, while Pham urged Beijing to allow more fruit imports.

China is already Vietnam's largest trading partner and about 70 per cent of its fruit and vegetables are sold to China, according to the Vietnamese agriculture ministry

Without mentioning the durian deal, the Chinese foreign ministry said that the two sides agreed to "explore the establishment of a mechanism to promote production and supply chains and to strengthen the construction of ports to facilitate bilateral trade".

This month China started importing passion fruit from Vietnam and, according to the news portal VnExpress, the embassy in Hanoi said last week Vietnamese seafood exporters will no longer be hit with temporary export bans if their containers are found to be contaminated with the coronavirus.

Foreign ministers Wang Yi and Saifuddin Abdullah shared a popular type of durian cake recently. Photo: AFP alt=Foreign ministers Wang Yi and Saifuddin Abdullah shared a popular type of durian cake recently. Photo: AFP>

The two countries have an uneasy relationship owing to a long history of territorial disputes and last week Pham expressed frustration over the "slow progress" in opening up Chinese markets to Vietnamese agricultural products. Vietnam also criticised as "overkill" a border closure following a Covid-19 outbreak in December that was only lifted several months later.

Le Hong Hiep, a senior fellow in the Vietnam Studies Programme of the ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, said the border closure - which left thousands of trucks carrying fresh produce unable to deliver their wares - would hurt Vietnamese perceptions of China.

"There remains a lingering suspicion in Vietnam that China may be using border trade as a tool to exert strategic influence on the country, by signalling its unhappiness with certain policies adopted by Hanoi," Le said.

"As such, while Vietnam is keen to maintain stable cross-border trade with China, Hanoi also wants to make sure that Beijing is not using it as a tool of economic coercion."

Durian farmers in Vietnam appear to be preparing for the Chinese market to open up - according to Vietnam News Agency, a total of 123 durian plantations and 57 packaging factories joined a three-day training hosted by Vietnamese Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development this week to study Chinese food standards.

The report said Vietnam would becomes the second country - after Thailand - to export fresh durian to China, adding it will give durian farming in the country "great room to grow".

"The more Vietnam can sell to China, the more unwilling Hanoi will be to upset its relationship with Beijing," Le said. "This may be something meaningful to China given that the United States is currently stepping up its efforts to sway Vietnam and regional countries away from Beijing."

Vietnam is a member of the US-led Indo Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity that was launched in May as part of Washington's efforts to advance economic engagement with the region to counter China's political and economic influence.

It is also the most vocal critic of China's claims in the South China Sea, but Le said stronger trade ties with China could also strengthen Beijings' position.

Last year, China imported some 821,600 tonnes of fresh durian with an estimated value of US$4.2 billion, according to Chinese customs data.

China has also been talking to Cambodia and the Philippines about importing durians. Earlier this month a pilot scheme to import frozen durians from Cambodia began with the arrival of the first 50-tonne batch, according to the news website Thmey Thmey.

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2022 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2022. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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