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Commentary: What one more dash in the South China Sea tells us about China’s game

SINGAPORE: Recent events in Asia might seem unsettling. Beijing released a new “standard map” that featured a 10-dash line claim to the South China Sea; Chinese President Xi Jinping snubbed the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Jakarta; and China and Philippines had yet another confrontation at the contested Second Thomas Shoal.

None of these would surprise a keen regional observer. Together, they weave a complex picture of China’s diplomatic playbook.

The combination of traditional diplomacy, gunboat diplomacy and public diplomacy has become routine in the region: China’s exercise of so-called “lawfare” – the use of legal systems and institutions to undermine the opponent – coupled with the use of “grey zone” tactics aimed at subverting the status quo in the South China Sea incrementally in ways short of war, against the backdrop of the annual ASEAN pageantry.

In fact, there’s a certain sense of deja vu. In 2020, the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, Beijing was especially abrasive in the South China Sea – the North Natuna Sea run-in with Indonesia, standoff over the West Capella oil drilling platform with Malaysia off Sarawak, and into early 2021, Whitsun Reef incident with the Philippines then under the helm of a relatively Beijing-friendly Duterte administration.

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