If China wants to prove its rise can be peaceful, then treating its Southeast Asian neighbours “exceedingly well” will be a litmus test of its commitment, Malaysia’s Deputy Defence Minister Liew Chin Tong said on Monday.

“Much as China believes that it is the victim of bullying by the West, particularly the United States, China needs to do everything possible to prevent the perception of smaller states that China is a bully,” said Liew at a forum in conjunction with the 45th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing.

“To get the policy mix right at all times, just as Malaysia needs to study China more, China needs to study Southeast Asians more too.”

Also present was China’s Minister Counsellor Chen Chen, who described current Malaysia-China ties as “soaring through the roof” in his keynote address for the Forum on Malaysia-China Relations, which saw speakers from both nations discussing past achievements as well as how to build a more sustainable bilateral relationship in the future around themes of politics, culture, diplomacy and the economy.

Liew’s remarks come amid rosy ties between the two nations, after initial concerns of a chill when Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad came to power for the second time last May.

When the Pakatan Harapan administration swept to victory in national polls, Mahathir set about suspending or cancelling a host of China-backed projects, citing empty state coffers.

However, with the resumption of work on the East Coast Rail Link, ties and further Chinese investment into Malaysia have blossomed, bolstered by the US-China trade war which has seen Chinese manufacturers scramble to relocate production facilities in an attempt to divert exports.

Malaysia has maintained that it will not take sides in the trade war, and instead seeks to “actively engage all sides in the fervent hope that the world is not split between China and the US,” said Liew, describing Malaysia’s role as one of “activist middle power” through proactive diplomacy and advocacy.

To do this, however, Malaysia had to “understand contemporary China better, and in a much deeper way”, as well as be better organised in harnessing its own potential.

“If Malaysia plays its cards carefully yet boldly, we can be the trendsetter in regional public opinion, just like in the case of Dr Mahathir speaking up for Huawei recently,” Liew said. “Or, in the case of the Belt and Road Initiative, the renegotiation of deals with Malaysia post-2018 elections probably encourages China to put more emphasis on financial transparency in future projects.”

At the same time, he said, China needed to “radically change its approach” to understand the region, approaching Southeast Asia not solely from the perspective of understanding huaqiao or the overseas Chinese diaspora but by seeking as accurate a view as possible.

“For China to emerge as a credible benign great power, China will need to treat Southeast Asian states exceedingly well to prove to the world that China’s rise is no threat to the region,” he said.

International relations expert Hoo Chiew Ping echoed Liew’s stance, saying China had “underestimated” responses from Malaysia and other Southeast Asian countries when it rolled out policy initiatives, expecting reciprocal appreciation without necessarily considering local domestic political dynamics first.

“China considers the Chinese diaspora in general as still holding an amicable view towards China, not knowing the struggle of local diaspora in their identity projection as more national than ethnic-based,” she said.

Learning about each other’s cultures, said Wang Zhenghai, China director of University Malaya’s Kong Zi Institute, “needs to go deeper”.

“In China, more and more universities are offering Malay-language courses, especially after the Belt and Road Initiative,” Wang said. “But more can be done.”

China’s supposed huaqiao approach made headlines in Malaysia in 2015, when then ambassador Huang Huikang was asked for a public explanation over remarks he had made warning that China would not “not sit idly by” when there were “violations of legal rights and interests of Chinese citizens and businesses” after an NGO organised a racially charged protest aimed at Malaysia’s ethnic Chinese.

Although the embassy said the remarks were directed at Chinese nationals, Huang said in a later speech that “no matter how far you are, no matter how many generations you stay, for overseas Chinese, China is forever your tender maternal home.

This gave rise to speculation that the remarks were aimed at Malaysian Chinese, who make up about 20 per cent of Malaysia’s population.