By Wang Fengjuan
In the Laos Pavilion at the 16th China-ASEAN Expo (CAEXPO) on September 24, Thongsawanh Bounleut, wearing traditional Lao dress, sorted and packaged tea from Laos while patiently answering a barrage of questions relayed by her daughter. Her daughter Xudalad Bounleut greeted customers with fluent Chinese and a sweet smile.
“Our family has operated a booth at the CAEXPO for more than a decade, at which we introduce and promote Laos’ tea, lucid ganoderma, moringa seed and essential oil to Chinese market,” explained Xudalad. After her mother witnessed so much of the rapid developmen of China, she decided to send her daughter to study in the country. After she completed high school in Nanning, capital of south China’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Xudalad Bounleut continued to pursue undergraduate studies in China and is now working on a master’s degree.
Every year, Xudalad Bounleut helps out at her family business booth at the CAEXPO. She noticed more and more people coming to the CAEXPO to shop and try new products. Through CAEXPO, her family business has attracted customers and big orders. The event offers an opportunity for the Bounleut family business to expand its circle of customers every year.
In November 2004, the first CAEXPO was held in the Nanning International Convention and Exhibition Center (NICEC), at which senior officials from China and ASEAN countries came together carrying water from the mother rivers of each country, symbolizing the concerted efforts of all countries to make the expo a success. The ritual marked the inception of the CAEXPO after which CAEXPO has flourished through promoting cooperation and development of China and ASEAN countries in fields of commerce and trade.
An Effective Platform
Many small businesses like that of the Bounleut family attend CAEXPO. When it started 16 years ago, few Chinese knew about world-famous civet coffee from Indonesia. With increasing exposure from the CAEXPO, civet coffee has become the benchmark for Indonesian companies exploring the Chinese market. Many other marquee products from ASEAN countries such as Vietnamese slippers, Lao beer, Thai mangosteens and cat mountain king durians from Malaysia have gained access to the huge Chinese consumer market through the CAEXPO.
On September 22 at the Indonesia Pavilion in the NICEC, the booth of Kapal Api, a major coffee producer based in Indonesia, was so popular that its circular exhibition area was perpetually packed with people tasting and buying coffee.
“The new products we brought this year were particularly popular, and the white coffee sold out pretty quickly,” reported Zhou Qinfu, regional manager of Kapal Api China Office and a Chinese Indonesian businessman. He expected the year’s sales to increase by 20 percent. “I especially hope to find agents in Nanning to help introduce our coffee to more people.” He noted that through the CAEXPO, Kapal Api’s products have become gradually accepted and recognized by Chinese consumers. He saw many repeat customers, which pleased him. The company is even considering opening an office in Nanning to recruit agents to sell coffee. “I came here to buy civet coffee for my friends,” revealed Wang Peng, a native of Tianjin. He already bought many Southeast Asian specialties for his relatives and friends as gifts. Wang attended CAEXPO to look for cooperation opportunities as well.
When the first CAEXPO was organized in Nanning in 2004, the focus was on displays of food, agricultural products and handicrafts. Today, China’s exhibition areas on intelligent systems, mechanical equipment, new energy technologies and new materials alongside character exhibition areas for each ASEAN country have become the major draws of the expo. Many participants see great potential for cooperation in fields of international production capacity, digital economics and e-commerce. The year 2020 has been designated for China-ASEAN digital economic cooperation, and the prospects for cooperation in e-commerce, digital trade and 5G network appear promising.
Since its establishment, the CAEXPO and China-ASEAN Business and Investment Summit (CABIS) have become important platforms for communication and cooperation between China and ASEAN. Bilateral trade volume jumped from US$55.2 billion 16 years ago to US$587.8 billion in 2018. China has been ASEAN’s largest trading partner for 10 consecutive years. In the first half of 2019, China ASEAN import and export trade volume reached US$291.85 billion, up 4.2 percent year-on year, making ASEAN China’s second largest trading partner.
Wang Lei, secretary general of the China-ASEAN Expo Secretariat, said that since China and ASEAN established a strategic partnership in 2003, their bilateral cooperation has become a model for successful cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region as it has benefited both sides and promoted the development of global economics and trade.
Smooth Regional Cooperation
At 9 a.m. on September 21, at the opening ceremony of the 16th CAEXPO at NICEC’s Golden Osmanthus multifunctional hall, senior officials from China and ASEAN countries made rubbings on a miniature scroll. Then a giant colorful China-ASEAN Strategic Partnership Vision 2030, drawn on a long scroll depicting the key construction projects of 11 countries in the form of landscape paintings, flew over the stage and then over the venue, eliciting stunned gazes and applause from the audience. The CAEXPO has undergone 16 years of cooperation and shared benefits and will continue to work with all countries to seize a bright future of mutual benefit and win-win results.
“Over the past 16 years, CAEXPO has become an important platform for investment and trade promotion activities in Asia, providing opportunities for discussion and exchange between China and ASEAN countries and further developing and expanding mutually beneficial trade and investment cooperation between China and ASEAN countries,” declared Indonesian Presidential Special Envoy and Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan in his opening speech. He added that the expo has organized more than 200 meetings and forums, issued a series of important documents such as Nanning Declaration and Nanning Consensus and established regular cooperation mechanisms in many fields to ensure smoother regional cooperation.
Representing the Country of Honor at the 16th CAEXPO, Pandjaitan introduced the Indonesia Pavilion, which exhibited the top-quality products of 110 Indonesian companies. The “City of Charm” exhibition hall was themed around Indonesia’s palm industry and displayed products from upstream and downstream the industry chain alike. “We will also present Indonesia’s high-quality cultural performances and fashion shows, and provide information on investment, tourism and trade,” Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan added.
The CAEXPO has established a high-level dialogue platform and a professional cooperation platform while expanding the role of Nanning as it has lifted China-ASEAN cooperation in various fields to the next level. Under the framework of the CAEXPO, more than 200 meetings and forums were held covering more than 40 areas, cooperation mechanisms in myriad fields have been established and numerous major projects were solidified including building a gateway for the opening of Guangxi’s financial sector to ASEAN and the China-ASEAN Information Harbor.
Expanding from government level to enterprise level, the CAEXPO has organized a series of activities to promote the facilitation of investment and trade in services in the free trade area, becoming a real “booster” for construction of the free trade area. Activities included CAEXPO Roundtable Meeting on Investment Cooperation, CAEXPO Promotion Conference on ASEAN Industrial Parks, China-ASEAN Infrastructure Cooperation Forum, national presentation conferences on China and 10 ASEAN member states, the “City of Charm” thematic exhibition and a special exhibition on CAEXPO trade in services.
CAEXPO also promoted acceleration of regional economic integration. The protocol on upgrading the China-ASEAN Free Trade Area became fully effective. China and companies from ASEAN countries have collaborated to build multiple economic and trade cooperation parks. Many projects under either Lancang-Mekong Sub-regional Cooperation, Greater Mekong Subregion Economic Cooperation, China-Indochina Peninsula Economic Corridor or Pan-Beibu Gulf Economic Cooperation are in full swing.
This year is the China-ASEAN Year of Media Exchanges. China’s media organizations and their counterparts from Indonesia, the Philippines and Singapore signed relative cooperation agreements at the China-ASEAN TV Fair, and the ASEAN-China Network Audio-Visual Industrial Base began operation. Through a series of activities, friendship between the two sides has continued to deepen, boostingChina-ASEAN relations to a new stage of comprehensive development.
Regional Common Prosperity
The China-Laos Railway, which starts from Lao border town of Boten in the north and reaches Vientiane in the south, is now under construction. It is an overseas railway project mainly funded and constructed by China, jointly operated by China and Laos, and directly connected to China’s railway network. The total length of the railway is more than 400 kilometers, and it is expected to be completed in 2021.
“When this project is completed, Laos will transform from a ‘landlocked country’ to a ‘land-linked country,’ which will benefit the social and economic development of Laos,” opined a city official of Vientiane. “It will also help Laos lift itself out of poverty as soon as possible.”
Laos is scheduled to be the Country of Honor of the next CAEXPO. Lao Deputy Prime Minister Sonexay Siphandone reported that Laos has actively participated in the construction of the Belt and Road, of which the most outstanding achievement has been the China-Laos Railway. Laos will continue to support and participate in implementation of various projects under the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and promote a closer strategic partnership between ASEAN and China.
Vietnam’s Deputy Prime Minister Vu Duc Dam said that 16 consecutive CAEXPOs and CABISs testify to the importance of China’s economy, the confidence of entrepreneurs in the Chinese market’s prospects and in the sound momentum of ASEAN-China cooperation.
Conversely, Lei Jun, chairman and CEO of Xiaomi, one of the world’s largest smartphone makers, expressed confidence in the ASEAN market at the 16th CAEXPO. “The ASEAN market has a very large and dynamic consumer group, and the economy of ASEAN countries is in a period of rapid growth, so many entrepreneurs will be emerging,” Lei said.
Hisham, a public servant from Selangor, centrally located on the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia, made his first trip to Nanning to attend the CAEXPO this year. Hisham bought five Xiaomi smart watches for his mother, wife, brother and two sisters back home.
In November 2018, China-ASEAN Strategic Partnership Vision 2030 was officially released, which provided a blueprint for medium and long-term development of China ASEAN relations. Each of the 10 ASEAN member states signed a cooperation document with China to jointly build the Belt and Road. At the CAEXPO this year, a series of activities aiming to implement the China-ASEAN Strategic Partnership Vision 2030 were held with an eye on promoting synergy between the BRI and Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity 2025 (MPAC 2025) and docking China’s programs with respective development plans of each ASEAN country.
“The BRI has provided new opportunities for regional integrated development and left a positive impact in terms of promoting regional and global connectivity and economic development,” remarked Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister Hor Namhong. He added that Cambodia is willing to further strengthen implementation of the China-ASEAN Strategic Partnership Vision 2030 through the CAEXPO.
Zhai Kun, deputy director of the Institute of Area Studies of Peking University and head of the Peking University-Tencent Belt and Road Big Data Innovation Lab, summed up the situation aptly, “Today, the international economic situation is complex and evolving as China-ASEAN economic and trade relations have shown strong vitality and development. ASEAN has become China’s second largest trading partner, which reflects the power of China and ASEAN in developing long-term institutional economic cooperation.”