Washington is all abuzz about China’s heir apparent, Vice President Xi Jinping, arriving in town Tuesday. Even the Pentagon is rolling out the red carpet for the man who will rule the country that may soon topple U.S. primacy in Asia. Indeed, China is ramping up a military that already can harm American interests in the region.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
China’s rise is about to hit a great wall. That wall is demographics. Thirty years into its coercive one-child policy, Beijing announced a contraction in its workforce this year, and the leadership is worried. China’s rise may not materialize the way experts say, or even at all.
True, China’s leaders have grand ambitions of making this “China’s century,” but they also recognize that population decline and a rapidly aging society may well derail those plans. Chinese older than 65 will account for more than a quarter of the entire population by 2050, up from 8 percent today. The over-80 crowd will increase more than five times during that period. Not only is the population aging rapidly, its absolute numbers will start to fall around 2029, according to United Nations estimates.
The strategic implications are unsettling. Beijing may conclude that its ability to exercise manpower-intensive military operations is diminishing. It thus may be tempted to use force to achieve important policy objectives before the window closes.
What’s more, 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. Experts say this is making Chinese society more unstable and aggressive. It already has given rise to cross-border human trafficking with China’s neighbors.
We don’t know if these trends will make China more pacific or more bellicose in the long term. We do know that the results of China’s demographic decline are raising regional uncertainty along with the risk of a turbulent China.
Meanwhile, Americans are looking at a bright demographic horizon. They alone among citizens of the developed world continue to have enough children to replace themselves. Demographers don’t know exactly why. Higher fertility among U.S. immigrants is only part of the picture. Values matter a lot. Higher fertility is correlated to regions where there are higher rates of religious practice and conservative ideals.
That means the U.S. workforce and military-aged pool will grow while China’s shrinks. The United States will soon surpass China in the number of workers per dependent old person, a key indicator of how well a nation will weather the economic storms of an aging society.
This augers well for America’s enduring leadership in Asia. The time is right for a strategic pivot toward the region that capitalizes on this American advantage.
A vibrant U.S. demographic profile, in turn, will sustain the national will to maintain forward presence during a critical period of demographic and strategic flux. The United States can bolster its allies, such as Japan, that already are turning inward because of accelerating population decline.
The rush to the conclusion that China will displace America’s leadership in Asia is far too premature. The supposed crossover point is nowhere in sight.
So let national leaders fete Mr. Xi this week, but they should do so with the quiet confidence that America’s strategic depth is an enduring advantage in this long-term competition.
Susan Yoshihara is director of the International Organizations Research Group at C-FAM. She is co-editor of “Population Decline and the Remaking of Great Power Politics” (Potomac Books, 2012).
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