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 Asean as a possible stabilising force in the region, and central to its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to link China with Asia, Africa and Europe through routes over land and sea.
The scholars were sharing their views yesterday 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 used to see ties with Asean as less important than those with powers such as the United States.
"But today, China-Asean relations are not at the margins; they are central as well," he said. By strengthening strategic cooperation, Asean and China can be a stabilising force in the region, he added.
Prof Zhu's comments came after Asean leaders had their annual summit in Manila earlier this week and had meetings with world leaders.
During the summit, 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 said China has placed more emphasis on relations with its smaller neighbouring countries than that with bigger powers since last year.
More than half of the overseas trips made by Chinese President Xi Jinping since then have been to neighbouring countries, he said.
China hopes to have good relations with Asean, which is at the heart of the maritime Silk Road under the BRI.
"Under this framework, because Asean countries are so important to the BRI, 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.
Speaking on the same panel, Professor Dewi Fortuna Anwar, a political scientist at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, 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 be a major "strategic error".
Prof Xue said that, in the long run, China can improve relations with Asean by exercising its soft power rather than flexing its muscles.