The Philippines' pavilion is one of the most eye-catching at the National Exhibition and Convention Center in Shanghai, the venue for the first China International Import Expo.
Designed to resemble an oyster shell opening to reveal a luminescent pearl－believed to be the first product Philippine traders exchanged with their Chinese counterparts－the whitewashed pavilion pays homage to bilateral relations between the two nations that stretch back more than 400 years.
The Philippines also stands out because it is one of the few Southeast Asian nations at the expo that is not just offering tangible products such as agricultural or electronic goods－it also wants to sell higher education.
It's little surprise that the country is targeting the education sector. After all, China is the world's largest source of international students. According to the Ministry of Education, 608,400 Chinese students went overseas to study last year, marking the first time the figure had crossed the 600,000 mark, a rise of almost 12 percent from 2016.
But the odds look to be against Philippine universities, as Europe and the United States are still the most popular destinations for Chinese students, and higher education institutes in the Philippines are hardly renowned on the global stage. Only two－the University of the Philippines and De La Salle University－have made it into the 2019 World University Rankings compiled by Times Higher Education.
Regardless, industry players from the Philippines are optimistic of getting a slice of the pie. Their main selling points? Affordability and high-quality English courses.
"We are definitely cheaper than places like the US and the UK. In fact, we probably offer the cheapest English-language education in the world," said Leopoldo Valdes, senior internationalization officer at Holy Angel University in Angeles City, Central Luzon.
"Nearly everyone in the country speaks English. And we have what people call a 'neutral accent', which makes it easier for people to pick up and practice the language."
Joy Christine Bacwaden, chief education program specialist at the Philippine Commission on Higher Education, said students are spoiled for choice, as the country is home to some 2,000 higher education institutions.
In addition to English courses, universities in the Philippines are also known for high-quality degrees in nursing and engineering, as well as hospitality and tourism, she added.
Jeremy Godofredo Morales, director of international relations at St. Paul University in Tuguegarao, said about 200 Chinese students have graduated from the school since 2005, and many are now working as nurses in hospitals in the United Kingdom, the US and Australia.
"We have always had Chinese students at our university. In fact, the Chinese connection even extends to our history. One of the co-founders of our university was a Chinese nun," he said.
However, while educational institutes are optimistic about making headway in the Chinese market through CIIE, the sector is not expected to be a key player in exports. Food and electronic goods, the Philippines' main exports to China, are expected to retain their leading position.
"We have more than 30 companies here at the expo, and most of them come from the food industry. In fact, some have received quite a large number of orders thanks to this event," said Pauline Suaco-Juan, executive director of the Center for International Trade Exposition and Missions in the Philippines.
"We have the best-tasting bananas and mangoes in the world. Our chocolates and coffees are good, too," she said. "The problem is our products are quite underrated and are not the obvious choice for consumers. That's why we are here to show Chinese consumers just how good our offerings are."