China's biggest challenge in diplomacy is in maintaining ties with its smaller neighbours, and not with the bigger countries like the United States, a former senior Chinese diplomat has said.
China should be more humble in dealing with these smaller countries but they should, in turn, work with China to seek common interests, said Dr Ruan Zongze, who was one of the top officials at China's embassy in Washington from 2007 to 2011, as minister counsellor.
At a talk last Tuesday, he said China has had many years of engagement with the big countries and there are many predictable factors.
But it is not the same with smaller countries such as the ASEAN ones.
"The neighbouring countries are finding it hard to adjust to today's China," Dr Ruan said in response to The Sunday Times' question on China's ties with its smaller neighbours as it becomes more assertive.
Both sides have to make adjustments, said Dr Ruan, vice-president of the China Institute of International Studies, a think-tank affiliated with the Foreign Ministry.
China should be more humble and interact with its smaller neighbours in an equal and consultative manner, said Dr Ruan.
"China hasn't done enough of this," he said at the All China Journalists Association talk attended by diplomats and foreign correspondents.
As for the smaller countries, they should see China in a "dynamic way", he added, using the Chinese words "dong tai".
China has changed the way it conducts diplomacy.
Now, it wants to have a bigger role in international affairs through initiatives such as the One Belt, One Road and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
Dr Ruan said: "These are not necessarily bad for the neighbouring countries. They should try to seek out common interests in these China-led initiatives."
He noted that some of China's neighbours are eager to have the presence of big countries in the region.
But he warned that they should not try to play the "highly risky" game of going back and forth among the big countries.
"If you don't have the wisdom, abilities and financial backing, you cannot last in the game."
After all, American foreign policy is decided in Washington, not in Tokyo or Manila.
Similarly, China's foreign policy is decided in Beijing and cannot be decided by other countries, Dr Ruan added.
He dismissed the notion that it is now time for China to lead the world, especially as the US, under incoming President Donald Trump, may not want to do so.
Dr Ruan said China does not have the abilities to do so and is merely living up to expectations by playing a more active role.
Next year, the One Belt, One Road initiative that aims to connect China with its neighbours will be its main focus in diplomacy, Dr Ruan noted.
It will host a One Belt, One Road summit in the first half of the year, and the annual Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (Brics) summit in September.
On Sino-US ties, Dr Ruan said it would not be "smooth sailing" in the coming year as the US transitions into a new presidency under Mr Trump.
Given the latter's rhetoric on slapping high tariffs on Chinese imports, Dr Ruan predicted a limited form of Sino-US trade war.
"The US cannot afford to shoulder the losses while China doesn't want to do the same," he added.
This article was first published on December 25, 2016.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.