Durian fervor in China: how China-ASEAN synergy bears economic fruits

Seated behind a stack of durian-flavored snacks at the Malaysian pavilion of the China-ASEAN Expo, 2 livestreamers were introducing the Southeast Asian country's iconic fruit.

Seated behind a stack of durian-flavored snacks at the Malaysian pavilion of the China-ASEAN Expo, two livestreamers were introducing the Southeast Asian country's iconic thorny fruit.

"Malaysia is home to more than 200 durian varieties, but I know the Musang King is the favorite in China," said one of the livestreamers, who is a Malaysian fruit exhibitor, to hundreds of viewers on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok.

At the expo currently underway in south China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, there's a palpable excitement about China's growing appetite for the pungent fruit, with many booths selling a motley of durian products, ranging from durian ice cream to durian coffee, while seeking cooperation with Chinese partners.

Lau Hieng Seng, hailing from Malaysia, brought more than 600 servings of durian-pulp ice cream to this year's exhibition, after missing out on three editions of the expo due to COVID-19.

"Anything with durian in it is hugely popular among Chinese consumers. Our only concern is whether our stock is sufficient," he said.

The Chinese market made up 91 percent of the world's demand for durian in the past two years, according to an HSBC report. Last year, the country imported 825,000 tons of durian, about four times the figure of 2017, according to customs and industry association data.

As the vast majority of durians sold in the Chinese market are imported from Southeast Asia, the "king of fruits" has emerged as a prominent symbol of the booming China-ASEAN cooperation and China's vast market potential.


Chinese Premier Li Qiang on Sunday said that China-ASEAN relations have become the most successful and dynamic model for cooperation in the Asia-Pacific, and a clear example of building a community with a shared future for all.

With a total population of more than 2 billion, China and ASEAN countries constitute a huge market, with its expansion and integration continuing to inject new impetus into the regional economy.

The flow of goods in this regional market has continued to benefit from tariff-free policies and expanded market access under the frameworks of the China-ASEAN Free Trade Area and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

"A decade ago, ASEAN fruits like durian, mangosteen and golden coconut were rare in China, but now they can be seen in fruit stalls in almost every big Chinese city at increasingly affordable prices," said Wang Zhengbo, president of a Guangxi-based fruit company.

Durians in China used to be predominantly from Thailand and Malaysia and were expensive due to limited supplies. Last year, Vietnamese durians, known for their longer harvest season and lower prices, gained market access to China under the RCEP framework, which was followed by the import of fresh durians from the Philippines starting in January this year.

Jumping onto the bandwagon of Vietnamese durian imports, Wang's company last year signed contracts with Vietnamese durian farms covering nearly 3,000 hectares.

"We plan to import more than 3,000 containers, or 60,000 tons, of Vietnamese durians this year to cater to the demand of the Chinese market," Wang said.

Thanks to the entry of durians into the Chinese market, Vietnam earned more than 500 million US dollars from durian exports in the first five months of the year, up 18 times from a year ago, official data from Vietnam showed. Vietnam exported more than 65,000 tons of durian during the period, with China buying 97 percent of the shipment.

Wong Kok Loong from Malaysia has been closely following China's durian craze. The entrepreneur started attending the China-ASEAN Expo in 2015 to sell durian pastries and candies. Seeing China's e-commerce boom in recent years, he opened stores on the country's leading e-commerce platforms like JD.com and Tmall.

"Now my durian products have expanded from four categories to over 80, including durian custard roll and durian cheese," he said.

"China's durian market still has plenty of potential, as only a small proportion of Chinese, mainly living in large cities, have had durian and durian products," said Wong, expressing optimism regarding the market prospects in China.

In August, China's retail sales of consumer goods reported a 4.6-percent increase after a three-month slowdown, indicating an improving consumer sentiment as the country's economic recovery gained momentum.


In recent years, the development of transportation infrastructure amid the China-ASEAN cooperation as part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has significantly boosted the durian trade, as there are specific requirements for the fruit due to its short shelf life.

On June 11, a train loaded with about 500 tons of fresh Thai durians reached southwest China's Chongqing. Traveling on the China-Laos Railway, a flagship BRI project, the entire journey took only four days, compared with eight to 10 days via previous land-sea routes.

"Durian imports have now become faster with more transportation options," said Guan Caixia, a Guangxi-based durian importer, whose Thai durians are either shipped through road-rail passage via Youyiguan land port or through sea-rail route via Qinzhou Port in the Beibu Gulf, a key knot for China-ASEAN trade.

But it is not just tropical fruits that have benefited from the improved connectivity. In Qinzhou, China-made auto parts, soda ash, and mechanical and electrical products are waiting to be shipped to ASEAN countries.

"We handle about 20 rail-sea intermodal trains every day, and our cargo delivery volume has increased from 27,000 tons in 2017 to nearly 3.3 million tons in 2022," said Huang Jiangnan, head of Qinzhou Port's east railway station.

According to China's Ministry of Commerce, trade between China and ASEAN countries rose from more than 100 billion US dollars in 2004 to 975.3 billion dollars in 2022. The two sides have been each other's largest trading partners for three years in a row.

"Against the backdrop of sluggish world economic recovery, China-ASEAN trade and cooperation have maintained robust growth, which is of both regional and global significance," said Zhang Jianping, a deputy director of the Chinese Academy of International Trade and Economic Cooperation.

At the opening ceremony of the China-ASEAN Expo, Premier Li said China is willing to import more specialty products from ASEAN countries, upgrade regional connectivity, and build a more stable and smooth regional industrial and supply chain system based on comparative strengths.

"China will continue to firmly support the ASEAN-centered regional cooperation architecture, better synergize the Belt and Road Initiative with the development strategies of other countries, and help ASEAN countries realize their development goals. China will work with ASEAN countries to advance regional economic integration," Li said.

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