World

‘Demographic trends are poised to spoil Beijing’s plans for a Chinese century,’ says author

Jamie Weinstein Senior Writer

Despite incessant cries by a certain class of foreign policy intellectual that America is declining and China is rising, Susan Yoshihara told The Daily Caller that demographic trends don’t bode well for the Sleeping Dragon.

“Demographic trends are poised to spoil Beijing’s plans for a Chinese century,” said Yoshihara, co-editor (along with Douglas A. Sylvia) of the book, “Population Decline and the Remaking of Great Power Politics.”

“The country is aging rapidly and it is facing a contraction in its workforce sooner than anticipated. More than a quarter of the Chinese population will be older than 65 by 2050, up from 8 percent today. And the very old — those over 80 — will increase more than five times. China will see absolute population decline by the end of the next decade.”

Conversely, Yoshihara said that America is in a great position to make the 21st Century another American century.

“The United States has the demographic advantage,” she said. “America’s workforce will be expanding significantly while those of other developed nations stagnate or decline precipitously.”

“The question is whether Americans will seize their demographic edge or squander it,” she added.

“Translating it into continued military strength requires addressing quickly the skyrocketing costs of health care, Social Security and servicing the national debt.”

But while America benefits from what Yoshihara calls “American demographic exceptionalism,” its closest allies are in rough shape. Because of this, Yoshihara said that America will have to make some tough strategic decisions in the coming decades.

“The paradox is that demographic decline will make the next few decades rockier, but at the same time cause a retreat by the very nations that helped the United States stabilize the world order after World War II,” she said.

“Who will help the United States in the 21st Century? It seems obvious that Washington should be pursuing new security partners and forging a strategic view that accounts for demographic decline.”

Check out the full interview with Yoshihara — who is also director of the International Organizations Research Group and senior vice president for research of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute — in which she discusses why demographic trends matter, and what the demographic trends of Japan, India, America and China portend for those nations.

Why did you put together this book?

I looked for a book that could tell me how demographic decline will affect military and strategic power — I couldn’t find one so decided it had to be written. Plenty of books argued why there were too many of us being born, but too few considered why the opposite might be true. Those that did were mostly about economics. I enlisted a group of security experts to plumb national demographic data and strategic documents, and tell readers whether the world will be better or worse off after so many decades of fertility decline. Their answers are sobering. The conventional wisdom says that older societies would make the world more peaceful. It turns out the opposite is true. Demographic decline — fertility decline followed by population decline — is about to have destabilizing effects, including strains in Asian security and trans-Atlantic relations.


Why are demographic trends so important in understanding great power politics? How are, as you write, great power politics being remade?

It is not possible to draw a straight line between population and power. But demographic health sets the table for economic, military and strategic prosperity. Conversely, demographic decline in all of the powers we analyzed is clearly associated with rising strategic pessimism.

In Asia, the rivalry for regional dominance between Beijing and New Delhi is about to make things turbulent as India overtakes China this decade as the world’s most populous nation.

Meanwhile, Japan, America’s closest friend in Asia, just announced it will lose a million people a year — 30 percent of its population — by 2060.

Like Japan, Europe already has fewer workers to fuel its ailing economies, and European capitals have had to make drastic defense cuts to pay for aging societies. Meanwhile, Russia’s decline is making it a destabilizing force. It’s obstructionist behavior toward U.S. policies in Syria and Iran are just some examples. And Moscow has lowered the threshold for using nuclear weapons due to its demographic decline.

The paradox is that demographic decline will make the next few decades rockier, but at the same time cause a retreat by the very nations that helped the United States stabilize the world order after World War II. Who will help the United States in the 21st Century? It seems obvious that Washington should be pursuing new security partners and forging a strategic view that accounts for demographic decline.

Based on current demographic trends, what countries do you think are in the best position to flourish in the 21st Century?

The United States has the demographic advantage. America’s workforce will be expanding significantly while those of other developed nations stagnate or decline precipitously.

The question is whether Americans will seize their demographic edge or squander it. Translating it into continued military strength requires addressing quickly the skyrocketing costs of health care, Social Security and servicing the national debt. Among other things, the entitlements squeeze tempts policy makers to make the wrong cuts to defense now, cuts that may undermine U.S. strategic interests tomorrow. Strategic drift isn’t helping. For some time, the planning of military forces has been disconnected from traditional strategic priorities. Escalating defense costs only increase the urge to slash defense programs without due regard for the strategic consequences.

Ironically, U.S. demographic health may be making policy makers complacent. The Pentagon has been able to fight two wars simultaneously while maintaining a force younger, fitter and better educated than the general working public. And arguably, the focus on the ground wars have pulled focus away from traditional American grand strategy that emphasizes sea power and balancing against the rise of a peer competitor. The strategic pivot to Asia is a good sign, but it still needs the right mix of assets to back it up.


What is “American Demographic exceptionalism”?

We find American demographic exceptionalism in the fact that Americans, alone among citizens of the developed world, are having about enough children to replace themselves. The slight drop off in births since the 2008 recession seems to be the result of young women delaying motherhood and from those waiting to have a second or third child. Older mothers are having more children during the recession. This is a good sign, provided the economy recovers. We find the exceptionalism in the way the U.S. better integrates immigrants than other nations. We find it in America’s slower pace of aging than that of the other powers. We find it in the fact that the military has not been significantly affected by such social trends as the rise in teen obesity since there are plenty of healthy youth to recruit. And we find it in the values that seem to be driving the demographic trend. Optimistic attitudes and religious values seem to correlate to areas of higher fertility.

What does the low birthrate of many Western European countries mean in terms of Europe remaining an important strategic player on the international stage?

European capitals have had to make drastic defense cuts to pay for the high costs of services to their social democracies, which are quickly aging and living for decades longer in retirement than anticipated. Due to its dismal demographic prospects, Europe’s competitive advantage depends upon a fundamental shift in the nature of power itself. If things change dramatically such that manpower matters less economically and militarily, and softer forms of power like norms and institutions matter a lot more, Europe may keep an upper hand.

What is the ‘Western Consensus’? Is it coming to an end?

The shared norms that have underwritten the trans-Atlantic partnership since the end World War II are already diverging. Western European nations increasingly emphasize multilateralism while downplaying traditional conceptions of national power, including military power, for resolving international security challenges. Indeed, ties have frayed over controversial debates about the Iraq War and other humanitarian interventions.

Demographic decline in Europe will only make the military instrument a less attractive tool of statecraft there. As the availability of youthful recruits fit for military service decline in Europe, the costs of recruiting and retaining personnel will increase dramatically. What is more, European reticence could foster more U.S. unilateral action in the future, further emphasizing the normative divide within the alliance about the use of force.

Can China overcome the demographic decline it set into place with its one-child policy to become a super power? Or will it, as some suggest, become old before it ever becomes rich?

Demographic trends are poised to spoil Beijing’s plans for a Chinese century. The country is aging rapidly and it is facing a contraction in its workforce sooner than anticipated. More than a quarter of the Chinese population will be older than 65 by 2050, up from 8 percent today. And the very old — those over 80 — will increase more than five times. China will see absolute population decline by the end of the next decade.

What would increase instability in the region is the fact that Beijing may see its opportunities for conducting manpower-intensive military operations dwindling. It may be tempted to use force to achieve important policy objectives before the window closes. Additionally, the one-child policy has produced a decades-long crisis of sex-selective abortion and infanticide of baby girls, resulting in an unnatural surplus of men. This is making parts of Chinese society more unstable and aggressive. It already has given rise to cross-border human trafficking with China’s neighbors. Whether all this will make China more pacific or belligerent in the long term is still a question, but there is no doubt that the nation’s demographic decline is raising regional uncertainty along with the risk of a turbulent China.


What does Japan’s phenomenally low birthrate mean to its future? Can it remain an economic power?

Maybe. Tokyo announced in January that the nation will be dropping from 127 million to less than 87 million people by 2060. And yet, it may be possible for the world’s oldest society to pull off an elegant decline. Unlike Russia’s demographic death spiral — marked by high mortality, a public health crisis and relatively low life expectancies — the Japanese enjoy a healthy, relatively productive, old age and competitive technological innovation.  If the nation successfully converts to a sustainable economy servicing the aged, and transitions from an export-led economy to an economy driven more by domestic consumption, it might be able to retain economic influence despite its advancing age and absolute population decline. The fact is that no one really knows what will happen or what is even possible, because no nation has ever been where the Japanese are today.

Like China, India is also seen as a rising power. What do its demographic trends suggest about its prospects in the 21st Century?

Like the United States, India has bullish demographic prospects. India’s workforce will expand admirably — by 11 million workers a year — even as China’s contracts. But India’s challenges are far more basic than America’s. While it produces the most engineers every year, it still has 25 percent illiteracy, inflexibility in its labor force, public health challenges and internal security threats.

That said, New Delhi is starting to realize that its burgeoning population, once considered a burden, may well be a boon. The nation has already displayed regional strategic ambitions, building a military to match. The question is what kind of strategic friendships New Delhi will foster to further these aims. Many point to a providential U.S.-India alliance: The world’s oldest and the world’s largest democracies, sharing demographic fortune and similar foreign policy goals, such as wariness regarding China’s rise. But this is by no means fated and requires timely diplomacy.

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