The 4th South Asian Countries Trade Fair, an annual regional trade show organized in parallel with the more popular and older, regional import and export trade fair, the 19th China Kunming Import and Export Fair, was held from June 5th to 10th, 2011, at the Kunming International Exhibition Center in Kunming, the capital city of southwest China’s Yunnan Province. While the main sponsors of the Kunming Trade Fair were the Ministry of Commerce of the People’s Republic of China and Yunnan Provincial People’s Government, the main sponsors of the South Asian Countries Trade Fair were the Governments of the South Asian region and the People’s Republic of China. The Kunming Trade Fair, co-sponsored by Yunan and other provinces and autonomous regions in the southwest of China, with the support of the central government, has blossomed into a major regional and international business platform since its inception 19 years ago. The intention of the Chinese government in boosting the economy of Yunnan province and helping to organize the Kunming Import and Export Trade Fair, was to develop Yunan as a frontier opening or gateway, for the two-way trade between the vast Chinese market and the markets of Southeast Asia, South Asia and West Asia.
The two fairs were officially declared open in the evening of June 5, 2011, by the Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo. Among the foreign leaders present at the opening ceremony were the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka D.M. Jayaratne and the Laotian Deputy Prime Minister Somsavat Lengsavad. Addressing the gathering soon after declaring the two fairs open, Mr. Dai Bingguo congratulated the organizers for holding the two affairs, and said that Yunnan was a “miniature” of China’s peaceful development and a “window” of China’s opening up to the outside world, expressing confidence that the province would serve as a channel in realizing the peaceful and common development of China and its neighboring countries. He further said that the two fairs played an important role in promoting friendly exchanges and mutually beneficial co-operation, between China and the neighboring countries of Southeast Asia, South Asia and West Asia. He expressed the hope that with the joint efforts of all concerned, the two fairs will grow from strength to strength, and help to promote common development and prosperity of China and its neighboring countries. Speaking on the occasion Prime Minister Jayaratne hailed the fair, which he said had become an important platform in boosting world trade, and especially that of Asian countries, by helping to explore business opportunities. After the opening ceremony Mr. Dai and the foreign guests watched performances by Chinese artists and acrobats.
All countries in Southeast Asia and South Asia had sent delegations to attend the two fairs, which were especially designated to display features of Southeast Asian and South Asian markets. In fact Sri Lanka had been adopted as the theme country for the 4th South Asian Countries Trade Fair, and was also holding the rotating presidency of the China-South Asia Business Forum. The two fairs attracted a total of 1,855 enterprises from China and other Southeast Asian and South Asian countries. There was a significant increase in the turnout of overseas exhibitors at the fair, which was 34% higher compared to last year’s participation. Another indicator of the success of the two fairs and their growing strength and popularity, was provided by the total transaction volume contracted during the five-day period of both fairs, which reached 6.96 billion USD, representing an increase of 180.4% compared to last year.
China registered a trade deficit of 1.02 billion USD in the first-quarter of 2011, the first quarterly deficit since 2004. Some economists believe that this may signify the beginning of a long-term trend in the Chinese economy, as China transforms itself from being the “world’s factory” to a major global marketplace, with more foreign goods entering the country to satisfy the demands of the Chinese people. As China’s massive population of 1.3 billion people continue to consume increasing amounts of goods and services more exporters are looking to the Chinese market to boost their business. It was in this context that the Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo said in his opening address of the two fairs, that China’s continued development meant increased opportunities for surrounding countries, for whom China offers a lucrative alternative, at a time when exports to developed countries have stalled due to the global financial crisis. This trend was clearly borne out from trade statistics for the year 2010, which showed that China became the largest trading partner of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), and the 10-member ASEAN in turn displaced Japan to become China’s third largest trade partner. Likewise trade between China and South Asian countries, including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka also showed a tremendous increase during the ten-year period from 2000 to 2010. While in the year 2000 the total trade volume between the two sides was only 5.6 billion USD, in the year 2010 it jumped to a phenomenal 80 billion USD, representing a 14-fold increase. However, the former president of the SAARC Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Tariq Sayeed believes that the 2010’s trade figures still lag behind the actual potential of the region. He is optimistic that the figure would reach around 150 billion USD by the year 2013.
In order to facilitate trade and investment, China is working with its southeast Asian and south Asian neighbors to update the transportation infrastructure in southern China and Southeast Asia, and particularly the railway network, as Yunnan Province will be linked to the proposed Southern Corridor of the Trans-Asian Railway (TAR) connecting Europe and Southeast Asia, via Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Mayanmar, and Thailand. Bangkok, the capital of Thailand will be linked to Singapore via Malaysia, and Ho Chi Minh City, in Vietnam via Cambodia, and Hanoi in northern Vietnam, through existing and proposed lines to fill the gaps. Southern China will be connected to this network, via Kunming in Yunnan Province. Kunming will become a nerve-center in this network, with already existing connections between Kunming and Hanoi, Kunming and Hong Kong and Kunming and Baogi in Northern China linking with the Northern Corridor of the TAR, and proposed connections to Mandalay in Myanmar and Vientiane in Laos, that would complete the Kunming-Singapore line through Laos. Kunming will become the transportation hub of Southern China, connecting to all the capitals of Southeast Asia and South Asia through the network of railway lines of the proposed Trans-Asian Railway. Construction work on the 530 km railway line connecting Kunming to Vientiane in Laos is currently underway and will eventually connect Kunming to Singapore via Vientiane, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur.
However, despite China’s economic development and greater opportunities it has provided to southeast Asian countries and south Asian countries for trade and economic co-operation, certain difficulties and problems have also arisen, as China is also a direct competitor with several countries in southeast and south Asia, producing the same products for the international and particularly western markets. Chen Lijun, director of the Institute of South Asian Studies at the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences is however upbeat about the situation, and believes that the opportunities will ultimately outweigh the challenges. He said, “China, southeast and south Asian countries are now at different stages of development, and there are a lot of ways in which they can complement each other. They must tap into each other’s comparative advantages to realize mutual benefit and common prosperity. China should continue to encourage its enterprises to invest abroad, while southeast and south Asian countries should optimize their investment environments in order to accommodate Chinese investors.”
Several parallel activities were also organized and conducted during the period of the two fairs. Some of these activities were, The Greater Mekong Sub-regional Economic Corridor Week, the Sixth China-South Asia Business Forum, Overseas Chinese Investors and the Asian-Pacific Chinese Entrepreneurs Forum and the Second China-Southeast Asia-South Asia Television Arts Week.