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Fresh Malaysian durians for China after trade deals signed during Li's visit

FILE - Durians are unloaded from a truck at a bazaar in Kajang on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, April 13, 2011. China and Malaysia signed a slew of trade deals June 19, 2024.
FILE - Durians are unloaded from a truck at a bazaar in Kajang on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, April 13, 2011. China and Malaysia signed a slew of trade deals June 19, 2024.

Fresh Malaysian durians will soon make their way to China as the two countries signed a slew of trade and economic deals Wednesday during a visit by Premier Li Qiang to celebrate a half-century of diplomatic relations.

Li held private talks with Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim in the government administrative capital of Putrajaya before they met with their delegations. The two leaders witnessed the signing of various pacts, including a new five-year deal for economic and trade cooperation that officials said would bolster links between industries in priority sectors like high-level manufacturing and the digital economy.

The sides also inked a protocol on measures that will allow Malaysia to export to China fresh durian, a spiky tropical fruit with a strong odor and known for its creamy pulp, Anwar’s office said.

Exporting fresh durians to China will open a new market for Malaysia, which began selling durian pulp and paste to China in 2011 and frozen durian whole fruits in 2018. Malaysia’s frozen durian export value to China has surged from 170 million ringgit ($36 million) in 2018 to nearly 1.2 billion ringgit ($255 million) last year, it said.

Li, the first Chinese premier to visit Malaysia since 2015, flew in for a three-day visit late Tuesday from Australia. Li, who was given a red-carpet welcome, said upon his arrival that the two nations' 50-year anniversary was a new starting point to deepen links and increase exchanges.

"China is advancing Chinese modernization on all fronts through high-quality development. Malaysia, on its part, is promoting national development under the vision of Malaysia MADANI. China is ready to work with Malaysia," Li said in a statement published by the national Bernama news agency.

Li, China’s No. 2 leader after President Xi Jinping, last week also became the first Chinese premier to visit New Zealand and then Australia in seven years.

Other agreements signed aim to promote investment in the digital economy and green development, combat transnational crime, and boost housing and urban development, higher education, people-to-people exchanges in science and technology, tourism and cultural cooperation, Anwar's office said.

Trade with China — Malaysia’s No. 1 trading partner since 2009 — made up 17% of Malaysia’s global trade, valued at $98.8 billion last year, Trade Minister Zafrul Aziz was quoted as saying by Bernama last week.

While trade dominated the talks, Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Mohamad Hassan has said the prickly issue of territorial claims in the South China Sea was also likely to be raised.

Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan all dispute Beijing’s claims to almost the entire South China Sea. But unlike the publicized clashes between the Philippines and China, Malaysia’s government prefers the diplomatic channel and rarely criticizes Beijing even though Chinese coast guard ships have sailed near Malaysia’s waters. This is partly to protect economic ties between the trade partners.

“That is why we need to further build on this good cooperation we have established since 1974. The good ties we have enjoyed since will allow us to manage and resolve any issue amicably,” Mohamad Hassan was quoted as saying by The Star newspaper ahead of Li’s visit.

Anwar, who visited China twice last year, has sought to move closer to Beijing even while engaging the U.S. as a key ally. While speaking at a forum in Tokyo in May, Anwar stressed that Beijing is too close, too important and too strategic to ignore.

Ahead of Li's visit, Anwar told Chinese media that Malaysia planned to join the BRICS bloc of developing economies but didn't give details. The plan was confirmed by Zafrul and Mohamad Hassan on Monday. The bloc's core members are Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, who seek a fairer world order currently dominated by Western nations. The bloc expanded with Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates invited to become members this year. Some 40 countries have also expressed interest.

“Joining BRICS doesn't mean Malaysia will lose its strategic ambiguity between Beijing and Washington. It merely means an additional platform to give it a bigger voice as a middle power," said James Chin, professor of Asian studies at Australia’s University of Tasmania.

Li is also scheduled to have an audience with King Sultan Ibrahim Iskandar. Malaysia's Foreign Ministry said Li and Anwar will also attend a groundbreaking ceremony at a construction site for the East Coast Rail Link, which connects Malaysia’s west coast to eastern rural states and is a key part of China’s Belt and Road infrastructure initiative.

The project was suspended in 2018 after Malaysia’s long-ruling coalition was toppled in a historic general election over a massive corruption scandal. It was subsequently revived after the Chinese contractor agreed to cut the construction cost by one-third, and is now due to be completed by the end of 2026.

The two leaders will also attend a dinner to celebrate the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations. Both leaders will also meet the business community at a luncheon before Li heads home Thursday.