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Opinion | How 'durian diplomacy' sweetens China-Vietnam broader relations

By Augustus K. Yeung

Must land border or maritime disputes necessarily lead to violent conflicts? The case of the China-Philippines may be one that warrants serious discussions – for better border management. Amid escalations both in terms of frequency and duration of physical conflicts, the following newspaper article may provide a model for China and the Philippines to peacefully resolve their current disputes through what I call "durian diplomacy".

China has repeatedly stressed that the Philippines should resort to diplomacy to resolve their maritime disputes but has offered no obvious incentives to lure the Philippines to the negotiation table.

If I remember correctly, President Xi Jinping has told Mr. Marcos Jr. that "China prepares" to extend a handful of economic and financial goodies for the benefits of Philippines.

Unfortunately, this pledge did not fall on Mr. Marcos's radar, or ears, not to mention discussing the existential issues of the affected Philippine fishermen's livelihood.

Note: The Chinese Coast Guards are there to enforce the law, not to resolve disputes effectively. And the Philippine side had only been responding in kind by calling in their smaller size coast guard boats. In a confrontation, it appears that the Chinese are "bullying" the Philippines. Worst of all, the Philippines have been purposely getting "Western journalists" on board their coast guard vessels in attempts to smear China's international image.

It's frustrating that no other alternative ways of resolving the conflicts have so far been tapped, until I read the newspaper article today, titled, "Surge in durian shipments from Vietnam helping to 'sweeten broader relations.

Vietnam's durian exports to China this year are expected to expand in value by two-thirds over last year following permission from Beijing to let more of the Southeast Asian country's pungent, lucrative fruit reach a still unsaturated market.

China has approved taking durian shipments from 27 more tracts of land in Binh Phuoc, a province north of Ho Chi Minh City, after the Vietnam Fruit and Vegetables Association trade group estimated the value of durian exports would swell to US$3.5 billion this year.

Those 27 tracts covered 701.5 hectares and could yield up to 14,030 tons of durians annually, the Chinese embassy in Vietnam said on Monday. In a statement on its website, the embassy added that China now allowed durians from 65 tracts in Binh Phuoc, spanning 2,412 hectares.

Vietnam shipped US$2.1 billion worth of durian to China last year, soaring from US$188.1 million in 2022. China allowed fresh Vietnamese durians 2021 after the fruit met phytosanitary rules. Chinese consumers prize durians as high-end treats and often gift them for special occasions. A single durian can sell for 100 yuan (HK$109) to 200 yuan.

Durian exports from Thailand and Vietnam dominate the Chinese market, but China is nurturing a young domestic crop, Malaysia is seeking a durian trade deal with China, and the Philippines is expanding production of the fruit.

"The Vietnam Fruit and Vegetables Association expresses optimism towards prospects for the Chinese market for durian exports," the VietnamPlus news outlet said in a February 25 report on the trade group's export-value estimate for the year.

A land border with China helps Vietnam ship durians by truck or train, saving on transport costs compared with other exporters, according to Nguyen Thanh Trung, a political scientist at Fulbright University Vietnam.

"China gained from the Vietnam durian trade, in part, by sweetening broader relations with Vietnam," Nguyen said. The two countries dispute sovereignty over parts of the South China Sea, causing occasional friction.

"What China can gain from it is Vietnam increasingly relying on China, and it creates some kind of co-dependency," he said. Vietnamese durian growers who make money from the trade would feel "more positive sentiment" towards China.

Growers in Vietnam could harvest durian in all seasons, the trade group said, as quoted by VietnamPlus. "The Vietnamese durian crop can be harvested year-round, an advantage compared with the seasonality in other countries," the group said.

But only some soil types in Vietnam can accommodate durians. And for a grower to switch crops, it would mean letting the land lay fallow and unprofitable for a year, Ralf Matthaes, founder of the Infocus Mekong Research consultancy in Ho Chi Minh City, said.

China imported 1.4 million tons of durian from all nations last year, up 69 per cent over 2022, data showed. Thailand took a 67.98 per cent share of that total, with most of the remaining balance coming from Vietnam. (Source: SCMP)

This "durian diplomacy" is an example of bilateral cooperation between China and Vietnam, working to the economic interests of both countries. And the spin-off is good border relations.

Most recently, the China Daily editorial also featured an article extolling the virtue of China and Vietnam for establishing a hotline between the Chinese PLA and the Vietnamese navy reflects the strategic mutual trust that exists between the two countries.

"This move comes at a time when tensions are high in the South China Sea, mainly because Manila, supported and encouraged by Washington, has been taking increasingly aggressive actions to challenge China's territorial sovereignty over Ren'ai Reef and Huangyan Island. The provocative and confrontational trespassing of the Philippines in the surrounding waters has led to severe standoffs between Philippines and Chinese coastguard vessels in recent months." China Daily's editorial said.

On Thursday, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. took part in trilateral talks with the U.S. and Japanese leaders in Washington, during which U.S. President Joe Biden once again hyped up the Mutual Defense Treaty between the U.S. and the Philippines. Notably, the summit was held just days after the three countries and Australia carried out joint military drills in the South China Sea.

The Philippines and China should understand and initiate, as Vietnam has shown, and focus on both countries' interest, and forge business ties, such as this "durian diplomacy", while actively finding warm solutions to help the Philippine fishermen to solve their disputes over a piece of cold-water way.


The views do not necessarily reflect those of DotDotNews.

To contact the writer, please direct email: AugustusKYeung@ymail.com

Read more articles by Augustus K. Yeung:

Opinion | German Chancellor Scholz in China – What are his goals?

Opinion | Sino-US stories of ambivalence and rivalry: Then and now

Opinion | Chinese leader: embrace a 'brighter future' through joint action

Opinion | Indonesian President-elect is visiting Beijing – to forge deeper cooperation


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