Professor John Blaxland warns that while the region moves closer to conflict “than in generations”, a decelerating economy in China could see its stronghold on the South China Sea weaken. He wrote in December: “There is a gnawing sense that this decade may see us get closer to the brink than in generations.” He adds that China’s President Xi Jinping is struggling to maintain Beijing’s rise in the face of a shrinking population and decelerating economy. This, coupled with “an inclination to project blame on others using the ‘century of humiliation’ as a deflection from its woes” contributes to a confrontational mindset.
Economic challenges have been made even worse by the rapid outbreak of the coronavirus in China late last year, leaving the country now in a state of lockdown.
Just last month, mainland China was reporting hundreds of new cases every day, and was considered the most high-risk infection area in the world.
In the period following the initial outbreak, Xi enforced draconian quarantine measures, restricting movement of people and goods in the world’s most populated country.
Professor Iain Begg told Express.co.uk last week that China is fearing it may lose its economic dominance.
He said: “Having been on Chinese television and been asked about this, it is clear the country is worried about this.
“They are even more worried in the shadow of a Trump initiated trade war that he will use it as a further pretext to clamp down on free trade.
“That’s going on in the background anyway, but that may be accelerated by the perception that when you have such integrated supply chains you become dependent.
“I don’t think China is unduly worried about it, they recognise the situation as a threat but they will adapt to buying more from countries from the US.”
In the context of the South China Sea, this could have devastating effects on its military bases and overall presence in the region.
China has invested billions in its military in recent years as it aims to establish itself as the most powerful force in the world, overtaking the US in the process.
“While this delay will only have a minor impact in the short term, if the crisis continues and companies are forced to halt production for a longer period then this could have long.”
In the South China Sea, Beijing has had its claim of 90 percent of the waters challenged by the US and other small nations.
This has led to countries increasing military presence – particularly near the contested Spratly Islands – and risking accidental clashes.
As the coronavirus cripples China’s economy, Xi Jinping may be forced to limit his country’s ambitions in the region.