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Biden’s Asian outreach reflects the power of demographics

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The Indo-Pacific region will see dramatic shifts in its population composition in the next few decades — a trend that already has begun. 

Important U.S. allies Japan and South Korea will see their total populations shrink and rapidly age. Japan became the world’s first “super-aged” society in 2005 – where over twenty percent of the population is 65 or over; that number is projected to climb to 37.5 percent in 2050. South Korea will see its working-age population (the ones who serve in the military and whose taxes pay for security) decline by almost 50 percent by 2050. Other long-time regional allies and partners — Thailand, Singapore, Australia, and New Zealand — also will see their populations age considerably.  

India, by contrast, will see its population grow and remain quite youthful in relation to other long-standing U.S. allies and partners — likely boosting its economic growth and creating an ample supply of men and women to serve in its increasingly capable military and to take over factory work that China’s shrinking working-age population will no longer be able to handle. Other large-population states Vietnam, Indonesia and U.S. ally the Philippines also will see population growth and relatively young populations over the next several decades. 

The Biden administration launched a full-court press last week across the Indo-Pacific, an area that U.S. Admiral Philip Davidson has called “the most consequential region for America’s future.” Within a week, President Biden joined a virtual meeting with the heads of state of the so-called Quad countries (Australia, India, Japan, and the U.S.), Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin traveled to meet with counterparts in Japan and South Korea, Austin continued to India and the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command Headquarters in Hawaii and Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan met with Chinese counterparts in Alaska. One notable aspect of this robust agenda is an emphasis on states that are growing both economically and in terms of actual population size, which will no longer be the case for many Asian states in the near future.

U.S. alliances and partners in the Indo-Pacific have long been central to peace and security in the region. Five of America’s seven formal alliances are in the Indo-Pacific. The growing emphasis on India and on the just-announced Quad-coordinated “vaccine diplomacy” in South and Southeast Asia mirrors shifting demographics in the region that U.S. leadership is wise to consider and to further reflect in future regional outreach.

It is natural, therefore, for future U.S. security planning to expand outreach opportunities with these countries in South and Southeast Asia. A good first step is through the building of good will through efforts such as vaccine diplomacy, which seeks to provide one billion doses to this sub-region by 2022. Another positive initial step is the concerted effort of senior U.S. officials to be physically present in the region. A promising follow up would be for Biden to announce plans to attend the major annual regional summit that President Trump chose to skip for four years, the East Asia Summit slated to be held in Brunei in November. Beyond talk, deepening cooperation with an expanded set of regional partners to address new security challenges posed by climate change and new security domains like cyberspace will help the U.S. to develop robust future partnerships in a growing region.

A renewed push to deepen ties with states in South and Southeast Asia — particularly ones poised to grow economically and in terms of population such as India, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam — must be paired with reimagining the U.S. approach to its “aging allies” such as Japan and South Korea, which remain presently the dual linchpins to the U.S. security strategy in Northeast Asia. Both of these states share U.S. security concerns about China and North Korea and have been increasing their regional security contributions — and security cooperation with the United States — despite their concerns about the future demographic challenges they both face. 

U.S. alliance managers should keep in the front of their minds this challenging demographic future of these important allies and together develop approaches to offset future manpower shortfalls with jointly developed technologies and streamlined practices through deepened coordinated operations and planning. The Biden team’s quick resolution of tensions sparked during the Trump administration over monetary contributions both states make annually to the cost of U.S. bases in those countries allowed for Blinken and Austin to spend their first in-person visits developing new cooperative strategies to manage the core security challenges these overseas bases contribute to addressing.

The United States is the only current major world power that is not facing a shrinking population and rapid aging. In the late 2020s, India will become the most populous country in the world, displacing China. China, by contrast, will enter a period of super-aging and a dramatic reduction in the size of their working-age population. 

In its first months in office, the Biden administration is showing through its presence and diplomatic attention a focus on regional states where future growth and prosperity will likely flourish — provided that these states can work cooperatively with the United States and each other to sustain the prolonged peace and prosperity the region has long enjoyed. 

Andrew Oros is professor of Political Science and International Studies at Washington College and a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington D.C. His books include “Japan’s Security Renaissance: New Policies and Politics for the Twenty-First Century” and the forthcoming “America’s Aging Allies in Asia: Demographic Change and National Security in the Indo-Pacific.”

Tags Antony Blinken Antony Blinken biden administration Diplomatic Relations Donald Trump Federal government of the United States Indo-Pacific Jake Sullivan Japan Joe Biden Joe Biden Lloyd Austin Political positions of Joe Biden Presidency of Joe Biden

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