Asean a vital linkway for China, say scholars

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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 Chinese scholars.

It 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.

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.

China hopes to have good relations with Asean, which is at the heart of the maritime Silk Road under the BRI.

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 that despite warm relations with China, Asean countries still have concerns over the South China Sea, one of the world's busiest waterways.