The King of Fruits: How China’s Durian Craze Is Strengthening Ties With Southeast Asia

The pungent, spiky durian fruit has long been treasured in Southeast Asia as the “king of fruits.” In recent years, durian fever has spread to China, with the country importing and consuming durians in unprecedented quantities. This burgeoning durian trade symbolizes the deepening economic ties between China and the ASEAN bloc, bringing prosperity to durian farmers while satisfying Chinese consumers’ craving for the divisive fruit.

The Rise of Durian in China

While many Westerners find durian’s potent smell and taste challenging, the fruit has become enormously popular in China over the past decade. Durian imports to China have risen from 200,000 tons in 2017 to over 800,000 tons in 2022, with Thailand and Malaysia supplying the majority.

Several factors unleashed Chinese consumers’ pent-up demand for durian. Rising incomes enabled more Chinese to try exotic tropical fruits. Shared cultural affinity with Southeast Asia meant many were already familiar with durian. Meanwhile, ASEAN countries ramped up durian production and improved logistics to serve the lucrative Chinese market.

The development of e-commerce and livestreaming in China connected durian sellers directly with millions of customers nationwide. Chinese consumers enamored by the fruit’s creamy texture and bittersweet flavor helped durian earn the nickname “king of fruits.” Durian-flavored foods like ice cream, pastries, and cheese are bestsellers.

Strengthening China-ASEAN Ties

Beyond appealing to Chinese taste buds, the durian trade has become a high-profile example of growing economic links between China and ASEAN under initiatives like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

Improved infrastructure like railways and ports under BRI has enabled faster shipping of perishable durian to inland Chinese cities. Tariff reductions under RCEP boosted durian imports from Vietnam and the Philippines. Meanwhile, Chinese investment in ASEAN durian farming helps meet Chinese demand while generating rural income for ASEAN nations.

At the 2022 China-ASEAN Expo, durian featured prominently as a symbol of regional economic integration. Agricultural cooperation and cultural affinity is bringing the two sides closer. ASEAN is already China’s largest trading partner, with bilateral trade reaching $975 billion in 2022.

Future Outlook

By exposing millions of Chinese consumers to Southeast Asian speciality fruits, the durian boom has expanded the market for other exotic imports like mangosteen, rambutan, and jackfruit from ASEAN.

To sustain future growth, ASEAN nations will need to balance durian exports to China with domestic demand and prevent over-reliance on a single market. Meanwhile, China’s vast e-commerce landscape offers continued opportunities for ASEAN exporters to directly access Chinese consumers.

As a high-profile agricultural import from ASEAN, the durian phenomenon reflects deepening economic ties between the regions. With its bittersweet taste and thorny rind, the iconic fruit encapsulates both the promises and challenges of China-ASEAN cooperation.

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