In what analysts say highlights foreign policy fault lines in Asean, China has reached a four-point consensus with Brunei, Cambodia and Laos on the South China Sea issue during Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi's just-ended visits there.
Mr Wang told a press conference in Vientiane last Saturday that the four agreed that territorial disputes over some islands, rocks and shoals in the South China Sea were "not an issue between China and Asean as a whole", China's state news agency Xinhua reported.
It was agreed that territorial and maritime rows should be resolved through consultations and negotiations by parties directly concerned.
While Asean agrees that specific territorial disputes should be negotiated between rival claimants, it takes the stance that the grouping and China should manage these disputes together to prevent conflicts through a legally binding Code of Conduct that is being negotiated.
China has overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea with Asean states Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia.
In their consensus, China, Brunei, Laos and Cambodia also opposed attempts to "unilaterally impose an agenda on other countries" and agreed that the right of sovereign states to choose their own ways to solve disputes under international law should be respected.
China's move comes ahead of a ruling on the Philippines' petition to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague against the legality of China's claims to almost the entire South China Sea, expected late next month or early June, a process that Beijing rejects.
Beijing's latest move is seen by some as preventing Asean from reaching a consensus on the ruling.
An Asean diplomatic source told The Straits Times: "China is quite worried that Asean will make some sort of joint statement after the arbitral tribunal decision comes out." Mr Wang was wooing Asean's "most compliant members", he said.
Ms Phuong Nguyen, an associate fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC, said this is "the most overt move so far by Beijing towards Asean in preparations for the upcoming ruling by the UN tribunal on the Philippines' case".
She said: "China has conducted behind-the-scenes diplomacy with a number of governments in South- east Asia to persuade them not to respond in favour of their fellow Asean member, the Philippines".
As China has put more pressure on Asean to not raise the South China Sea issue at Asean-led forums, the bloc has found it harder to maintain a united front on the matter.
In 2012, Cambodia as Asean chair acquiesced with China to block mention of the South China Sea in a joint communique of an Asean foreign ministers' summit. It led to the failure for the first time in the grouping's history to issue such a statement. China is Cambodia's largest single provider of aid.
At their summit in February in Laos, however, Asean foreign ministers addressed the issue in their joint statement, saying they "remained seriously concerned over recent and ongoing developments" in the South China Sea.
On China's latest move, Indonesian Foreign Ministry spokesman Arrmanatha Nasir said in a text message that "claimant countries must resolve their dispute peacefully in accordance to international law".
• Additional reporting by Arlina Arshad
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