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.
For its part, China has affected anger at being accused of trying to split Asean. Of course, every nation is entitled to use its diplomatic arm to further its national interest. In Beijing's case, the present impulse is to contain the fallout of what could be an adverse ruling from the international tribunal at The Hague on the sea dispute. But it is for Beijing to also ponder the consequences of sowing mistrust in the region .
It was always reckoned that the fault lines in Asean would be between the mainland states and the maritime or offshore ones. For this reason, Brunei's inclusion in the consensus is a worrying one because it is not only a maritime Asean nation, but also a claimant state in the South China Sea dispute, alongside the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia. This adds a new dimension to things. It is for Asean states, even if some are weakened by the dramatic fall in oil prices, to weigh the implications of going along with China's divisive actions. Any smaller state has precious little apart from Asean consensus and solidarity to counter acts of assertion by a giant in its neighbourhood.