Indonesia is experiencing friction with its largest trading partner, China, over access to the Chinese market for its mangosteens.

Enggartiasto Lukita, Indonesia’s Trade Minister, told Asia Times on October 13, during a trade expo in Banten, on Java island, that: “We [have] complained about the export to China for mangosteens, bananas and bird nests.”

China, which surpassed the United States as Indonesia’s top export destination last year, in fact lifted import restrictions on Indonesian bananas and bird nests (which are used to make soup) in 2014 and 2015 respectively. However – as confirmed by Dandy Iswara, trade attache at the Indonesian embassy in Beijing – Indonesian mangosteens have been banned from entering China since 2012.

The reason given to the Indonesian trade office for the ban was that Indonesian mangosteens were found to contain traces of cadmium, a toxic chemical element.

“We have proved that [this] is not true,” said Lukita, “but still there is a restriction.” The office has written to China’s Ministry of Commerce in China to raise the issue.

Iswara, who has been pressing for the ban to be lifted, further clarified that the mangosteens that failed to comply with China’s import standards came from West Java. “Those plantations do have a higher composition of cadmium, but [cadmium content in] plantations in other areas like Sumatra is way lower,” said Iswara. The differences are caused by different types of soil, he added.

Enggartiasto Lukita, Indonesian Trade Minister talked to Asia Times during the 32nd Trade Expo on October 13, 2017. Photo: Asia Times / Lin Wanxia
Enggartiasto Lukita, Indonesian Trade Minister talked to Asia Times during the 32nd Trade Expo on October 13, 2017. Photo: Asia Times / Lin Wanxia

“We have been trying to give all the information the AQSIQ [China’s Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Qurantine] needs and explain to them,” Iswara said.

Indonesian mangosteens are in fact still feeding the appetites of Chinese consumers for what they call the “Queen of fruit” – only by more circuitous routes. The fruits are exported to other Southeast Asian countries first, then repackaged and relabelled as, for example, Thai or Malaysian mangosteens, before being to China.

According to Chinese customs data, the country imported mangosteens worth a total US$54.63 million in the first half of 2017, and 99.29%  were from Thailand. It is impossible to know what proportion originally came from Indonesia.

Back in 2012, before the ban was imposed, Indonesian mangosteen exports to China stood at US$36.64 million. That figure dropped to US$27,360 in 2016 – according to Iswara, a handful of customs ports allow Indonesian mangosteens through in small quantities and with strict stipulations relating to their provenance.

Indonesian fruit account for 0.3% of all commodities the country exported to China in 2016. The value of all Indonesian exports to China reached US$16.8 billion, accounting for 11.6% of Indonesia’s total exports. The United States accounted for 11.2% of the country’s exports.