Beijing’s ‘creeping expansionism’ in the South China Sea

Beijing’s ‘creeping expansionism’ in the South China Sea

The South China Sea island disputes is an ongoing and complex situation in Southeast Asia’s doorstep. It has the power to disrupt multilateral alliances. This sparking point in international relations has lasted for decades. However, no major conflict has ignited because of it. This is because of a tactful Chinese ‘creeping expansionism’ strategy. How has this worked, and is there any stop to it?


The South China Sea Island dispute originates from a map, indicating Chinese ownership of the region. This map clashes with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea’s (UNCLOS) article(s) on nations Exclusive Economic Zone. That is, the article sets the legal precedent on sea territorial disputes. The current challenge, having been relatively subdued until 1974, now involves China, Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia. A resolution provided by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague dismissed China’s claim in 2016. This was subsequently rejected by Beijing.

The South China Sea territory holds an estimated 125 billion barrels of oil and 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves. Additionally, over 10% of the global fishing supply (worth approximately $22 billion) is traced to the region. Finally, an estimated $3.4 trillion (2016) of shipping trade passes over the sea every year. With these stakes, governments and multinational corporations are paying close attention.

Creeping expansionism

China is leading the contest through a successful tactic known as ‘creeping expansionism. This relies on strategic moves that individually are not confrontational. They do not cause enough of a shockwave to justify serious or armed escalation from other parties. China has conducted incremental developments over the last four decades in line with this strategy. Comparing the current situation against over 40 years ago, when China was involved in trivial fishing altercations in a large wild area sea area. Now, China totally prevents fishing vessels and military fleets from an area scattered with Chinese military outposts and artificial atolls. The South China Sea now even includes a military-grade island airstrip.

Regional politics

China has achieved a prominent status within the domain of regional politics. It has demonstrated ambition and expansive tendencies through the Belt and Road initiative and by fostering increasingly close ties with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The most recent example of regional political rapprochement is that of the Philippines. The current Duterte presidency, which began in 2016, initially opposed China’s behaviour in the region. It also momentarily held the US as an ally.

Since taking office, Duterte reduced his country’s close ties with the US and shifted loyalties to China. Vast loans from China, including a $169-billion infrastructure-building programme part provisioned by the Chinese Government, has converted the Philippines. Duterte recently questioned the US regional Navy military drills and claimed that China is “already in possession” of the South China Sea. In 2017, the Philippines exported $99 billion of goods and services, $20 billion of which went to China (20%), and $13 billion, which went to the US (13%). This demonstrates the economic appeal, even necessity, of good relations with Beijing.

Therefore, the success of China’s ‘creeping expansionism’ and their economic might has set the right conditions for the Philippines’ shift of allegiances. The economic benefits of a China-Philippine reconciliation will be best understood in the long term. However, it is unlikely to match the compounded gains of a defined slice of the South China Sea provided by the UNCLOS Exclusive Economic Zone. With the option for quick funding and better relations with their main export partner, it is easy for the politicians in Manila to side with Beijing.

Failure to halt ‘Creeping Expansionism’

The US Navy continues to exercise its right of free passage in the region and often enters in dangerously close encounters with their Chinese counterparts. With the current US administration already applying economic sanctions on the Chinese, it is an increasingly hazardous environment between China and the US. In the South China Sea itself, a stalemate ensues. Creeping expansionism will continue without bold American action. This is a likelihood because muted American response has been the norm.

If the current trajectory remains, China’s position in the region and globally will become increasingly important. Regarding international shipping, the potential control and manipulation of the shipping lanes are sensitive. China’s influence on international business can be held hostage through control of the lucrative shipping route from the Far East to Europe.

Global shipping already is set to have pressure applied onto it with the incoming International Maritime Organisation’s (IMO) fuel levy in 2020. However, any provocative or malicious attempt to halt or restrict shipping through the South China Sea will have global connotations not only for international shipping operators but international trade too. Around 80%-90% of international trade of which is done by sea. Consequently, any changes to international shipping will realistically incur higher costs for consumers as well.

The aforementioned oil and gas reserves, if realised, could fuel the continually growing nation’s energy demand. Same goes for the fish stocks that could feed a growing population.

A success story?

In conclusion, Chinese creeping expansion, as a strategic move, has been a resolute success. China has effectively established itself in the region with strong economic growth and military-backed control. This has been achieved without war and any significant repercussions. Furthermore, China’s economic and political clout in the region, as well as internationally, is highly likely to rise in the medium to long term. This results in an increasingly unfavourable environment for its regional neighbours whose economic powers fail to match that of China. At this stage, it appears to be more tempting for the smaller nations to offset territorial disputes for Chinese financial benefits. It is deeply worrying that international law standards have been disregarded by China and for nations not to have intervened to uphold the legal precedents. However, as Duterte somewhat simply put, what can you really do when ‘China is already in possession’?

Categories: Asia Pacific, Insights

About Author

Fabian Bak

Fabian is an International Political Economy Master graduate from the Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, in the Netherlands. He has undergone academic stints in Germany, the Republic of Korea, the Russian Federation, and holds a Bachelor degree in International Relations from the University of Leicester, in the United Kingdom. Fabian has worked for a European Union Institute in Luxembourg and in Consulting and Banking in London. His interests lie in Central Banking, International Finance, EU affairs, Maritime and Aviation, European, Russian and East Asian Political Economy.