Fresh Malaysian durians will make their way to China as trade deals signed during Premier Li's visit

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — 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.

They also inked a protocol on measures that will allow Malaysia to export to China fresh durian, the 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 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.

While trade dominated the talks, the prickly issue of territorial claims in the South China Sea was also raised.

The two leaders agreed China and claimant countries in Southeast Asia should tackle the maritime dispute “independently and properly” through dialogue and cooperation, and via bilateral settlement, China’s Xinhua news agency reported.

No details were given but the statement came amid concerns that the sea row could escalate and put the U.S. and China in a larger conflict following a fresh confrontation this week between Manila and Beijing. The U.S. renewed a warning Tuesday that it is obligated to defend treaty ally Philippines, after Chinese forces seized two Philippine boats delivering food and supplies to a military outpost in a disputed shoa and injured several Filipino navy personnel.

Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan all dispute Beijing’s claims to almost the entire South China Sea. 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.

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.

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 Malaysian officials 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 also had an audience with King Sultan Ibrahim Iskandar. He and Anwar later broke ground for a terminal station 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.

Li said at the ceremony that the railway was the largest single transportation infrastructure project undertaken by a Chinese company overseas. Once it is completed, he said China is willing to work with Malaysia to develop projects along the railway line to drive more commerce, logistics and tourism. Li said the rail line also could potentially be linked to Thailand, and subsequently to southern China.

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.


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