As China's emergence as an economic powerhouse continues and its influence on the world stage grows, it would be only natural for the country's neighbours to look on with feelings of trepidation. The threat of China dominating the region at the expense of other, less powerful nations is one that is frequently aired. But there have been signs recently that such fears are giving way to a gradual realisation that Asia has much to gain from the rise of China, and that the future lies in working together. This is no doubt due partly to the charm offensive launched by the leadership, which has been working hard to cement relations with neighbouring countries and to assure them they need not be concerned about China's surging growth. The increasing maturity China has shown in the international arena, from helping the cause of developing nations at the Cancun trade talks to acting as an honest broker in efforts to solve the North Korean nuclear crisis, have also helped boost its stature. But it is China's role as an engine for growth in the region, the market it provides for exports from neighbouring countries and the potential for an Asian economic super zone that are primarily responsible for the shift in mindset. The latest evidence emerged yesterday, with figures showing demand in China for Japanese goods reached its highest level ever in September, with Japanese exports to China increasing more than 42 per cent compared with the same time last year. The story is repeated across Asia. China's demand for raw materials and components needed for its booming manufacturing industry is bringing dramatic increases in exports to the country from its neighbours. Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines are among those who have benefited. Indeed, exports to China from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have risen by more than 50 per cent in the first half of this year. The China factor has made Asia the fastest-growing region in the world. Challenges are, of course, also posed by China's emergence. Much of the investment that once went to Asean nations now heads to the mainland, and they will need to work out how to position themselves in an environment dominated by China. But the trend is towards pulling together - removing trade barriers within the region, standardising procedures and generally promoting free trade. A more integrated and liberalised Asian economy will heighten its power and reduce dependence on the United States. A free-trade area encompassing China and the 10 Asean countries is planned for 2010, with Japan and South Korea also expected to join. Talks between Asean and India have also taken place. The potential is great, with Asean nations also hoping to form a European-style economic zone by 2020. China has also played a leading role encouraging closer ties between nations through which the Mekong river flows. This includes the building of cross-border roads and railways as well as removing barriers to trade. The message, as summarised by President Hu Jintao at this week's Apec forum, is to open markets and to promote regional growth - but on the basis of mutual trust, respect and the seeking of common ground. It is a message that has been generally well received. Thailand and Malaysia, among others, have been quick to play down suggestions that China poses a threat and to point to the potential benefits of its emergence. Even the technological advances demonstrated by China's first manned space flight have attracted more acclaim than concern. China's role as a dominant economic power in the region is guaranteed and its influence will continue to grow. This will pose challenges for other Asian nations - but also create opportunities.