Demographic Change and Regional Affiliations in East Asia. (Demography)

Population Briefs, September 2002 | Go to article overview

Demographic Change and Regional Affiliations in East Asia. (Demography)


Many political scientists and international economists imagine a world future in which there are three dominant regional blocs: the European Union, a Western Hemisphere grouping centered on the United States, and East Asia. The North American Free Trade Association (NAFTA) is a move toward Western Hemisphere regionalization. Various similar efforts at regional integration have been attempted in East Asia.

Although most research on regionalization lies within political science, significant demographic influences on the process warrant examination. Recently, Population Council demographer Geoffrey McNicoll explored these influences in the East Asian case---examining how population change is affecting the emergence of Asian regional affiliations and identities, from simple trade pacts to deeper levels of economic and even cultural integration.

Regional leadership: China and Japan

Stable regional affiliations can evolve among a group of countries with roughly comparable size and technology, as happened in Europe or the subregion of Southeast Asia. They can also evolve where one country is an uncontested dominant power, as in South Asia or (in a plausible future) the Western Hemisphere. The region of East Asia--from Japan to Myanmar--is not like either of these situations: it has two major powers, Japan and China. This feature, notes McNicoll, "makes for a distinctive structural problem in regional architecture."

China and Japan are on vastly different economic and demographic trajectories. China's economy is burgeoning; Japan's is stagnant. A shift in regional leadership is already anticipated: according to prominent Japanese management guru Kenichi Ohmae, "In the future, Japan will be to China what Canada is to the United States, what Austria is to Germany, what Ireland is to Britain."

Demographic contrasts play an important role in this changing perspective. The difference in age structure is the most obvious of these. China is about 30 years behind Japan in the proportions of the population over age 60. Currently 10 percent of the population in China is over 60, compared with 23 percent and steeply rising in Japan. But although Japan has a larger immediate problem in confronting population aging, it is also institutionally far better equipped to deal with this situation than is China.

Japan, moreover, does not have to deal simultaneously with rural-to-urban migration: it is fully urbanized. China, in contrast, will likely have to absorb hundreds of millions of rural migrants into its cities over the next several decades--a daunting prospect should the country's economic growth falter.

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