IF CHINA wants to improve ties with its Asean neighbours, it needs to address the trust deficit that exists between the two sides.
That's one constant theme that cropped up during a two-day forum earlier this week between past and present diplomats and think-tankers of Singapore and China.
Asean-China ties figured prominently on the meeting's agenda because Singapore will be country coordinator of relations between the two sides, from next year for three years.
The annual forum, consisting of a closed-door session and a public one, was organised jointly by the East Asian Institute of the National University of Singapore and the Chinese People's Institute of Foreign Affairs.
After listening to participants' comments at the forum, and interacting with many of them, I would say that the lack of trust goes both ways. Asean's anxieties about China's intentions, coloured by what it perceives to be China's growing assertiveness over its competing territorial claims with some Asean members in the South China Sea; and China's concern that the regional grouping is seeking to balance Beijing's influence through closer relations with other powers in the region such as Japan as well as outside powers like the United States.
There appears to be some frustration on the part of the Chinese that despite their efforts to promote goodwill and reassure their neighbours of their peaceful intentions, suspicion remains.
These efforts include China's decision during the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis when it refrained from devaluing its currency, the yuan, so as not to aggravate the situation in South-east Asia, and the early harvest programme from 2004 of the Asean-China free trade agreement that gave some Asean states early access to the huge Chinese market.
More recently, the Chinese last year proposed an Asean-China Treaty on Good Neighbourliness, Friendship and Cooperation and joint development of a modern-day maritime Silk Road.
What was worse - and this makes the Chinese feel aggrieved - was that South-east Asian states appeared quick to bring into the region other players or to internationalise regional issues.
The Chinese were furious with Vietnam for entering into an agreement with India for oil and gas exploration and production when Beijing and Hanoi already have a similar pact to do so in areas that both sides claim. The Chinese were reportedly mad with the Philippines for internationalising their territorial disputes by taking Beijing to an international tribunal instead of sitting down with it to resolve the disputes bilaterally.
Yet, if the Chinese were to pause to think, Asean states acted out of anxiety, not just about the sheer size and might of China that they cannot hope to match, but also over Chinese actions on the ground that were contradictory to their stated intentions of goodwill and peaceful cooperation.
A Vietnamese commentator wrote recently that China negated all its positive gestures in recent months to improve ties with the region by placing an oil rig well within Vietnam's exclusive economic zone. He added that this move showed that China was "actively seeking to re-establish a China-dominated regional order in South-east Asia".
As for the Philippines, it was prompted by incidents such as the Scarborough Shoal stand-off in 2012 to draw closer to the US and Japan, and also to take its disputes with China to an international court of law. In 2012, weeks of military stand-off had followed the Philippine navy's apprehension of some Chinese fishing boats in the disputed Scarborough Shoal. The two sides then agreed to withdraw from the area. But Chinese vessels continued to patrol the area, restricting access to it - effectively a de facto occupation of the shoal.
It is hard, given such acts of assertiveness on the part of China, for the region's small states not to feel suspicious about any goodwill gesture from it.
So it was that at the forum's public session on Tuesday, on China's proposal of a maritime Silk Road to facilitate trade and development, a reporter asked if this meant that China intended to take over the leadership of the region, discarding the current arrangement of having Asean in the central position of regional cooperation, with the grouping thus having a diminished role.
This echoed the Vietnamese commentator's worry that Beijing was seeking a China-dominated regional order. The reply from the Chinese to the reporter's question was that Asean would continue to play a central role.
It will be difficult for China to build a friendly neighbourhood if each move it makes is met with distrust and fear of its intentions.
To dispel that distrust, it could try as a first step to have some empathy for its small neighbours. China forgets that because of its sheer size, any move it makes that seems insignificant to it could have large implications for its small neighbours.
As a Singapore diplomat put it graphically later, all the small states are asking of their giant neighbour is that, as the elephant in the room, it tries not to break its neighbours' crockery and furniture as it moves.
Or as a participant at the forum, a lawyer, expressed it, China could try putting its feet in Asean states' shoes. He was speaking to The Straits Times in reference to remarks by Mr Yang Wenchang, leader of the Chinese team and the forum's co-chair.
Mr Yang, a former ambassador to Singapore and head of the Chinese People's Institute of Foreign Affairs, had spoken on the issue of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands which both China and Japan claim. He noted, with a tinge of frustration, that Japan's refusal to admit that there was a dispute of sovereignty in the area prevented the start of talks to resolve the issue.
The lawyer commented that by the same token, Beijing, instead of reacting with anger at Manila's taking it to court, could participate in the case, which it has refused to so far.
The Chinese have a saying, jiang xin bi xin, or "to use one's own feelings and experience to understand another's feelings and experience".
If the Chinese could use its own feelings and experience of dealing with other major powers - including a bigger power than itself, the US - to understand its smaller neighbours, it may be able to find the answer to the conundrum of how to deal with the small states that have proved frustratingly cautious of late of its overtures.