SINGAPORE - China did not accord much importance to ties with South-east Asian countries in the past, but is taking a different view these days, said visiting Chinese scholars.
For China sees the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) as a possible stabilising force in the region, and central to its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which plans to link China with Asia, Africa and Europe through routes over land and sea.
The scholars were sharing their views on Friday (Nov 17) at an ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute seminar on Asean relations with China.
Professor Zhu Feng, dean of the Institute of International Studies at Nanjing University, said China has traditionally considered relations with Asean as less important than that with powers, such as the United States.
"But today, China-Asean relations are not at the margins, they are central as well," he said, adding that China needs to pay more attention, spend more energy and gain more understanding of Asean and its 10-member countries.
By strengthening strategic cooperation, Asean and China can be a stabilising force for the region, he added.
Prof Zhu's comments are timely coming just after Asean leaders had gathered in Manila earlier this week for their annual summit and meetings with world leaders.
During the summit, which was also attended by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, leaders of Asean and China announced they would start negotiations on a code of conduct to manage tensions in the South China Sea, with talks set to begin next year.
Likewise, Professor Xue Li, of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), said China has placed more emphasis on relations with its smaller neighbouring countries than that with bigger powers in the past year.
Prof Li, director of international strategy at the Institute of World Economics and Politics at CASS, noted that more than half of the overseas trips made by Chinese President Xi Jinping in the past year have been to neighbouring countries.
China hopes to have good relations with Asean, which is at the heart of the maritime Silk Road under the BRI, to ensure the success of the project, he noted.
"Under this framework, because Asean countries are so important to the BRI, so generally speaking, the Chinese government wants to keep disputes under control," he said.
For instance, four Asean nations - Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Brunei - have competing territorial claims in the South China Sea with China.
But both scholars also stressed that China does not expect to challenge the US nor replace it as the dominant power in the region.
The two China-based scholars were speaking on a panel of four experts - joining Professor Dewi Fortuna Anwar, a political scientist at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, and Mr Daljit Singh, a senior research fellow and coordinator of the Regional Strategic and Political Studies Programme at the ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.
Prof Dewi said despite warm relations with China currently, Asean countries still have concerns over the South China Sea - one of the world's busiest waterways.
"There are concerns that China has an ambition to become a regional hegemon... and China's recent assertiveness in the South China Sea is regarded as proof of this desire," she said.
She added that moves by China to divide and rule Asean would undermine the bloc's trust and goodwill towards China, calling it a major "strategic error" on China's part. She cited what happened in 2012, when it was widely believed that Chinese pressure led then-Asean chair Cambodia to veto the Asean joint communique on the South China Sea.
Prof Xue said in the long run, China can improve relations with Asean by exercising its soft power rather than flexing its muscles.
It would have to persuade Asean that China can be trusted and is a "good big brother", negating the need for Asean to look to other countries for security.
"This is a long process for China, but China should have the patience to do this," he said.