Biden’s Pentagon can exploit China’s population decline
China conducted its seventh national population census in November and December. The results are startling. China’s downward human spiral is accelerating, according to the government’s new numbers. This isn’t just a social and economic problem for China. It threatens the country’s geostrategic position in the long term and international security in the short term. U.S. foreign and defense policymakers should pay close attention to how Beijing responds to the news.
Chinese mothers bore fewer babies in 2020 than in any year since 1961. Some provinces reported a 30 percent drop. This, on top of nearly a decade of contraction in working-age Chinese citizens is speeding up the pace of population aging.
By 2050, a Chinese government think tank announced, there will be only one worker supporting each dependent old person; today there are two workers supporting each elderly person. By comparison, China’s old-age dependency ratio, a key indicator of future economic stability, has grown twice as fast as that of the United States since 1971.
China’s main state pension fund and urban worker pension fund are projected to run out of money by 2035, according to reports, threatening a humanitarian crisis.
Beijing’s response has been too little, too late. In 2015, the Chinese Communist Party announced it would change its draconian one-child-per-family mandate into a two-child policy. Birth rate increases were small and short-lived. The fertility rate continued to fall. The impact of the coronavirus lockdown may have resulted in even fewer births than we know. Figures are expected in April, but birth registration data show a 15 percent decrease.
This should be a warning to other regimes who believe they can buy economic growth on the backs of young working couples. Too many countries try to emulate China by chasing some “demographic dividend,” while telling couples to postpone and curtail their desired family life. Population planning is sticky in the downward direction, not upward. For Chinese couples, the light of the once-revered large family norm has gone out and the Chinese Communist Party cannot relight it at will.
The only reason China eked out an increase in population last year, from 1.39 to 1.4 billion, was the momentum from a still relatively large cohort of women of childbearing age. But after a 30-year campaign against baby girls — from abortion, infanticide and abandonment — the number of would-be mothers is falling by 3.4 million a year. The number is expected to double in the next five years. Chinese mothers have only 1.5 children, on average. That is the official figure; demographers say it is likely lower. That is well below the 2.1 children needed to replace themselves, and that means a steeper decline in births ahead.
As a result, deaths will soon exceed births. China’s population is projected to shrink from 1.4 billion today to 1.32 billion by mid-century. India will overtake China as the most populous nation by 2027 — little more than one five-year plan away.
Unlike what Nassim Nicholas Taleb called a “black swan,” a highly improbable event that catches leaders unaware, demographic demise is what Michele Wucker called a “gray rhino,” a highly probable, high-impact, yet neglected threat looming on the horizon. As the failure of the revised family planning policy shows, Beijing doesn’t know what to do about it.
That’s why U.S. foreign policymakers must recognize the short- and long-term effects of China’s demographic decline on its external behavior. My colleagues and I have argued, for almost a decade, that Beijing would see closing windows of opportunity to resolve manpower-intensive security disputes before losing its robust working-age population.
No one knows China’s population numbers better than Xi Jinping, general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party. What we see now is the leading edge of Xi’s response to the demographic “gray rhino.” He sees the beast’s dangers to his ambition of making China a great power by mid-century. Perhaps that is why Xi is in such a hurry.
Policymakers should be asking why, now, is Beijing sacrificing busloads of young, singleton, Han Chinese men to face-down (far-better acclimated) Indian troops on the harsh Himalayan border? Why so unrelenting the attacks on Hong Kong students, and the aggressive disputes with neighbors over islands in the South China Sea? Why, now, the massive incarceration, torture, systematic rape and forced sterilization of millions of Uighurs in Xinjiang?
In the short term, Washington and its allies must deter the destabilizing effects that China’s population problem is having on international and regional security. Over the long term, and especially at this stage in its competition with China, the United States should be thinking about exploiting China’s strategic weaknesses. Though not talked about enough, uncontrolled demographic decline is arguably one of that nation’s most existential vulnerabilities.
With the latest data confirming Xi’s worst fears that demographic decline could throw off his timetable, we can expect the 2020s to be China’s decade of living dangerously.
Susan Yoshihara, Ph.D. is president of the American Council on Women, Peace, and Security, instructor at the Defense Security Cooperation University, and co-editor of “Population Decline and the Remaking of Great Power Politics.” The views expressed here are her own. Follow her on Twitter @susan_yoshihara.