Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad yesterday said Asean has done a good job in maintaining the region's stability despite coming up against "big powers".
"Asean is one of the few regional organisations that are still functioning today," Tun Dr Mahathir said. "Asean has stayed together, and by and large, we have the same approach to resolving our problems."
He also said other regional groups such as the European Union and the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) bloc are "not doing very well".
Dr Mahathir was replying to questions from the audience at the ISIS Praxis Conference, hosted by the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia.
He pointed out that South-east Asia, as a "strategic area of the world", sees much of the global trade and businesses pass through the region.
"To that extent, you have to acknowledge that, at this moment in the Strait of Malacca and South China Sea, passage of ships is still free, without any obstruction," he said, noting that this has been the regional group's achievement.
"But once people start sending warships to this area, there'll be tension," Dr Mahathir said.
"Our appeal to the big powers is to keep out all these weapons of war in this area... Our appeal seems to be heard by the big powers. So far, they've not deliberately created any crisis."
Dr Mahathir was likely referring to Sino-US tensions that have existed for years. China has built military bases on the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, while the United States conducts freedom of navigation patrols to contest Chinese claims in the disputed waters. The two big powers are also locked in a bitter trade war.
Malaysia has sought to maintain a middle ground between the two sides, seeing increased US investments this year while China remains Malaysia's largest trade partner.
The Pakatan Harapan administration has also resumed the East Coast Rail Link project that will be built by a state-owned Chinese firm after negotiating a cost reduction.
"China is one of the richest countries in the world. And rich countries make good markets," Dr Mahathir said. "There are opportunities for trading and we want to continue our good relations with China."
While many view China's mega infrastructure project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), with apprehension, and criticisms abound over the country's foreign policy that is seen as putting poorer nations under a "debt-trap diplomacy", Dr Mahathir told the conference that understanding the BRI's purpose is important.
"We support the idea of One Belt, One Road but we need to find out what this exactly means," he said, using another name for the BRI.
He also noted that Malaysians remain particularly sensitive to discussions on race. "We don't want our people to think that after being influenced by the West, we are now being influenced by China," he added, given that Malaysians' feelings about their own race are "still dominant".
While he acknowledged that China "will wield a great influence over the whole world in the future... it is not for us (Malaysia) to promote Chinese ideologies but to find out how we can benefit from that".