China’s surprise announcement of a consensus with Laos, Cambodia and Brunei on how they approach South China Sea disputes has generated predictable concern. The four points are: The dispute is between individual states rather than Asean as a bloc; these countries should be left to settle the dispute by themselves; they should do so without use or threat of force; and China and Asean should cooperate to ensure peace in the South China Sea. However, Asean secretary-general Le Luong Minh is correct in pointing out that Asean members should adhere to their common position on the South China Sea agreed in 2012. That includes the early conclusion of the regional code of conduct. He also rightly pointed out that no Asean state could negotiate with China on a dispute that involves other Asean countries.
It is instructive that Brunei and Laos have stayed silent on the so-called consensus. However, Cambodian spokesman Phay Siphan has even denied such an agreement exists. This, and the fact that Foreign Minister Wang Yi announced the so-called consensus while in Laos, the current Asean chair, after a whistle-stop tour of the two other states involved, suggests Beijing’s diplomatic stratagem is by no means a new one.
China sees its strategic interest served by a divided South-east Asia. It has had varying success in this endeavour, starting with the 2012 Asean summit in Cambodia that failed to produce an agreed statement. The fallout from that had a sobering effect on Asean. Yet, last August in Kuala Lumpur, it was evident divisions remain. Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman, after saying in opening remarks that “this be the day we say we do more” on the dispute, had to later settle for a statement that failed to directly name China.