On the modern highway that runs from Nanning, the capital of the southern province of Guangxi, down to Qinzhou port, something is conspicuously missing – large trucks carrying the kind of 40-foot cargo containers common at ports across the world.
The lack of freight points to the relative newness of the port on the Beibu Gulf just east of Vietnam. But the Chinese government hopes Qinzhou – the country’s sixth “free-trade port” – will eventually boost incomes in inland provinces, partly though growing levels of trade with southeast Asia.
Chinese premier Li Keqiang gave the port and Beijing’s so-called “western development strategy” some momentum when he visited Qinzhou in July. “Guangxi is the only provincial region with large ports in west China and it has the ability and conditions to become a strategic regional pivot for the whole of southwest China to develop a foreign-bound economy toward Asean [Association of Southeast Asian Nations],” Mr Li told workers at the port.
Underscoring the Chinese push to increase trade with southeast Asia, Nanning recently hosted the 10th annual China-Asean trade expo, which attracts thousands of southeast Asian traders who are desperately trying to sell their products in the expanding Chinese consumer market.
Huang Junai, a Taiwanese businessman whose company manufactures chopsticks in Vietnam for export, says China is becoming his most important market. “Although China and Japan both use chopsticks, China is the bigger market,” says Mr Huang.
The expo also attracts Asean officials keen to attract investment. This year, Moe Myint Kyaw, secretary-general of Myanmar’s Federation of Chambers of Commerce & Industry, told the audience that his country needed investment in agriculture, aquaculture and infrastructure.
As part of its attempt to capitalise on the Chinese market, Myanmar has set up a trade office in Nanning.
China’s push to boost trade with its neighbours has so far been successful. It has become Asean’s largest trading partner, and over the past decade Sino-Asean trade has grown 600 per cent to $400bn last year.
While many southeast Asian countries, and particularly Indonesia, have faced a rocky few months since the US Federal Reserve started talking about tapering its bond-buying programme, the impact on Sino-Asean trade has so far been relatively muted. In October, the government said total trade between China
and Asean in the first three quarters of 2013 was $322bn, a rise of 12 per cent over the same period the year before.
Sino-Asean trade is also likely to rise after the completion of a regional trade agreement – the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership – being negotiated by Asean members and China, Japan, India, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.
China has also undertaken a charm offensive to win over southeast Asian countries that want to boost trade ties with their neighbour but are wary of its growing might in the region.
With US President Barack Obama forced to abandon a trip to Indonesia for the recent Apec summit, Chinese President Xi Jinping had the floor to himself. After the event, Mr Li embarked on a tour of the region designed to shore up support.
But, while Beijing is pulling out all the stops to make new friends, not everything is going its way.
After Typhoon Haiyan devastated the Philippines in early November, China was criticised for initially offering only $100,000 – about 5 per cent of what Indonesia pledged – to help the relief effort.
The paltry offer, which was later raised by Rmb10m ($1.64m), was seen as a result of tense relations between Beijing and Manila over contested territory in the South China Sea.
But despite the tensions with China, many traders at the China-Asean expo said the geopolitics would have little impact on their push to make money.
中国-东盟博览会还吸引了迫切希望引资的东盟官员。缅甸工商联合会(UMFCCI)秘书长吴苗代(Moe Myint Kyaw)今年向在场听众表示，缅甸需要农业、水产养殖和基础设施领域的投资。
目前东盟国家正在与中国、日本、印度、韩国、澳大利亚和新西兰开展“区域全面经济伙伴关系协定”(Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership)谈判。在达成这一地区贸易协定之后，中国与东盟的贸易额可能还会增加。