Xinhua - Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on Sunday squeezed several hours out of his tight schedule in Malaysia to visit Malacca, a port city about two hours' drive from Kuala Lumpur.
The tour, quite distinctive in an itinerary crammed with multilateral and bilateral meetings, featured a diversity of activities from visiting museums to chatting with local folks.
However, it was well beyond a regular travel to get to know the local customs and conditions. More importantly, it was an explicit gesture of China's commitment to peaceful development and common prosperity in East Asia.
China has been playing a leading role in promoting all types of regional cooperation and integration, as the premier demonstrated in the 18th ASEAN-China (10+1) leaders' meeting, the 18th ASEAN-China, Japan and South Korea (10+3) leaders' meeting, and the 10th East Asia Summit.
He pledged to offer loans totaling 10 billion U.S. dollars for ASEAN infrastructure as well as free assistance worth 3.6 billion yuan (around 563 million U.S. dollars) to underdeveloped ASEAN nations in 2016.
He also called on China and ASEAN to speed up the upgrade of their free trade area (FTA), and conclude the negotiations on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) by 2016.
Although most of the nations in the region aspire for closer ties with China, a few countries have been hyping up "China threat" theories and wrongfully accusing China of bullying its neighbors.
Hegemony is never within China's culture and policy, as proved by ancient Chinese navigator Zheng He's great expeditionary voyages during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Li reiterated the message during his stay in Malaysia.
Li made a particular stop at Zheng He Museum in Malacca, a place to commemorate the erstwhile intercontinental voyager, who is also believed to be the initiator of the ancient Maritime Silk Road.
Starting his expeditions more than eight decades earlier than Christopher Columbus, Zheng made seven sea voyages to Southeast Asia, South Asia, West Asia and East Africa from 1405 to 1433, and brought silk, tea and chinaware either as commodities or as gifts to the local people wherever he traveled.
Historical records revealed that Zheng visited Malacca for at least five times, and deepened the friendly exchanges between China and Malaysia in a significant way. Actually, he remains widely admired today for bringing nothing but friendship and prosperity to the places on the route with his big fleets.
However, maritime disputes have been simmering in recent years in the sea area where Chinese ancestors used to sail around. The United States, with its high-profile strategy of rebalance to the Asia-Pacific, is meddling in regional affairs and stoking tensions.
Prior to the meetings, U.S. President Barack Obama labeled the South China Sea as "a major topic," and U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice dubbed it "a central issue of discussion."
Last month, Washington infuriated China and alarmed the region by sailing a naval vessel very close to China's Nansha Islands in the South China Sea.
Earlier Sunday, before he went to Malacca, Li urged countries from outside the region to play a positive and constructive role and refrain from taking actions that may cause tension in this region.
In a five-pronged proposal for peace and stability in the South China Sea, he also suggested that sovereign and jurisdictional disputes in the region be settled through friendly consultation and negotiation.
"Only by expanding our common interests and seeking common ground can we narrow our differences," he told ASEAN nations in an earlier meeting.
SPIRIT PASSED DOWN FOR CENTURIES
Six months before Li's visit to Malacca, Zhai Mo, a well-known Chinese navigator, also made a stop at the famous port city while leading his fleet of unpowered sailboats to retrace the ancient Maritime Silk Road in a bid to pass down Zheng's spirit.
They encountered heavy rain at the Strait of Malacca. "The sea water turned into dark green in the storm, and we approached the shore in rafts," Zhai said while recalling his first landing on Malacca.
"What struck me most is the sharp contrast -- how small the strait is and how huge Zheng He's fleets would have appeared," Zhai said.
Zhai could not even find a proper berth to anchor his boat, which has a draught of only 2.5 meters. It is just beyond his imagination how Zheng's hundreds of vessels and some 28,000 boatmen on board managed to swarm into the strait 600 years ago.
Looking around the exhibits, including boat models and porcelain remains said to be excavated from an ancient warehouse left by Zheng, the premier said he believes it was also the sharp contrast between what Zheng's powerful fleets could have done and what he actually did that won him the everlasting reputation.
As the museum displays, Zheng asked his people to help local soldiers and civilians build city walls, drive away pirates, settle conflicts and keep peace at sea in Malacca. They also passed agricultural and manufacturing technologies and medical skills to the local people.
Commanding the largest and most advanced fleets in his time, Zheng did not bring hostility and conflicts. That embodies the very essence of the traditional Chinese philosophy, where peace and good-neighborliness always come first, Li noted.
Following this spirit, China's development today will never sacrifice the interests of other countries and will always pursue mutual benefit and common development of all its partners, he said, stressing that China is willing to solve maritime disputes through negotiations and dialogues.
Another of Zheng's legacies lies in the bloodline of a very special community in Malaysia -- Baba and Nyonya. They are descendants of Zheng's followers who decided to stay and married the local residents between the 15th and 17th centuries.
In Malacca, Li also visited a museum about these natives of mixed blood, who have inherited both Chinese and Malaysian traditions and formed their own cultures in food, clothes, chinaware and building.
The Baba and Nyonya community is "a vivid example of the friendly exchanges and cultural blending between the two countries," Li said. "They also showcase the openness and tolerance of Zheng He's spirit, which allows different ethnic groups, cultures and religions to live in harmony."
"Learning from the history, we shall further promote cultural exchanges between China and Malaysia," he said.
FUTURE CARRIED BY NEW INITIATIVE
The premier, who also met with the Malacca governor and inspected a miniature of an industrial park, did not come here only to recall the past glory.
Malacca, located in the southern region of the Malay Peninsula, not only plays a critical role in China-Malaysia friendship since ancient times, but also stands at a key point along the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, which is part of the Belt and Road Initiative proposed by President Xi Jinping in 2013.
In an early step to put the initiative into action, the Malacca State established a friendly partnership with South China's Guangdong Province in September, and the industrial park is a major project currently under construction by companies from both sides.
Listening attentively to the introduction about the industrial park, Li said he is pleased to know that Malacca has worked out detailed planning for the project and launched a series of preferential policies.
"The industrial park, with distinct geographical advantages and vast development prospects, will not only stimulate the local economy, but also boost a cluster of industries and promote practical cooperation between China and Malaysia," Li said.
The park was associated with the grand Malacca Gateway project. After China put forward the Belt and Road Initiative, which also comprises the Silk Road Economic Belt, the Malaysian government has decided to expand it as an active response to the proposal.
The project, covering more than 610 acres with two man-made islands and a natural one, was originally planned to comprise a cruise ship port, a service department, hotels and theme parks to invigorate the tourism and service industries.
After the expansion, it will turn into a center of tourism, logistics and high-tech marine industries, with a deep sea port, a ship yard and a duty-free trade zone added to the construction list.
More than 300,000 ships pass through Malacca every year, but due to a lack of related facilities, these ships have to wait for a long time to be served, which shows the urgency to build a new seaport terminal, Idris Haron, chief minister of Malacca State, once explained.
Haron said he had met more than 50 delegations, most of which came from Guangdong, since he took office about two and a half years ago, and he had visited China for at least seven times for the purpose of promoting cooperation.
The Chinese premier, who will hold talks with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak on Monday, said he hopes that what is going on in Malacca serves as an example for future bilateral cooperation and for the implementation of the Belt and Road Initiative among Southeast Asian countries.
The 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, covering a population of 4.4 billion people, will connect markets along its route and produce enormous economic potential.
"I hope the initiative will bring more markets and jobs to the local people and enterprises in Malacca," Haron said.
That is exactly what it is meant to do.
"China's development will first benefit its neighbors, including Malaysia, and I expect that everyone can seize the opportunity to contribute to the friendship and common development between China and ASEAN nations," Li said.