Academic journal article Policy Review

Power and Population in Asia

Academic journal article Policy Review

Power and Population in Asia

Article excerpt

FEW WOULD CONTEST the general proposition that the population factor bears directly on the course of the friendly--and sometimes unfriendly--competition between states in the world arena today. Problems arise, however, when we try to move from the general to the specific. How, exactly, do human numbers (population size, composition, and trends of change) affect the ability of governments to influence events beyond their borders--or affect the disposition of a country's interactions with outside actors? And this is no less important for the would-be strategist: How can we use population indicators to anticipate, with some reasonable hope of accuracy, the impact of yet-unfolding demographic forces on the balance of international power? This essay explores these questions for the world's largest strategic arena: the great Asian/Eurasian expanse.

Auguste Comte, the nineteenth-century French mathematician and sociologist, is widely credited with the dictum "Demography is destiny." It is a wonderful aphorism--but it promises too much and offers too little. A more operational formulation might suggest that demographic forces can alter the realm of the possible, both politically and economically, for regularly established population groupings. Demographic considerations can (but are not always required to) alter the complex strategic balance between, and within, countries.

By comparison with other contemporary forms of change--social, economic, political, technological--demographic changes are very slow and very regular. Over the past generation, for example, a 3 percent per annum rate of population growth would have been considered terribly high in Asia, while a 3 percent inflation rate would have been regarded as remarkably low. And demographic change is only sharp and discontinuous in times of utter upheaval and catastrophe (circumstances, to be sure, not unfamiliar to modern Russia, China, Cambodia, and Korea--and a number of other Asian or Eurasian populations). From the standpoint of strategic demography, momentous developments can and do occur from one generation to the next, but rather less of note can be expected to take place over the course of three to five years.

For our purposes here, we will try to peer into the Asian and Eurasian demographic future to the year 2025. To many readers, that may sound like an exercise in science fiction--but such a time horizon is by no means as fantastical as might be supposed. For one thing, contemporary Asia's population structure invites the longer view. Apart from a few outposts, most places in East Asia and Eurasia are rather far along on the notional "demographic transition" from high birth and death rates to low ones. In practical terms, this means--barring only horrendous catastrophe--that we can expect relatively little "turnover" within a given population from one year, or even one decade, to the next. Projections by the United Nations Population Division (UNPD) make the point. According to the UNPD's most recent medium variant figures, for example, in 2025 roughly four-fifths of the inhabitants of East and Southeast Asia will have been alive in 2000, and 60 to 70 percent of these future East and Southeast Asian inhabitants will be people who were already living in those regions as of the year 2000. (1)

We can also talk with more confidence about Asia/Eurasia's demographic future today than we could in the relatively recent past because a great many blank spots in the region's demographic map have been filled in over the past generation. As recently as the late 1970s, Asia--a perennial land of mystery to the Western traveler--was also tremendously mysterious to the student of population trends: Huge portions of the Asian/Eurasian landmass qualified as a demographic terra incognita. China, Vietnam, and North Korea (among other countries in the region) had never conducted a modern national population count, had not done so for decades, or had not released such internally collected data for decades--and the USSR, well into its "era of stagnation," had taken to suppressing methodically those demographic data that Brezhnev luminaries took to be politically sensitive or ideologically embarrassing. …

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