The Future of the World’s Population Powers

International   |   Tom McFeely   |   Dec 29, 2011   |   8:41PM   |   New York, NY

If “demography is destiny,” then — courtesy of their great populations — China, India and the United States clearly stand apart from other nations.

But what does the future hold for these three population powers, in terms of their demographic outlook and their ability to translate their force of numbers into global political influence?

These are among the important questions addressed by the distinguished contributors to the new book Population Decline and the Remaking of Great Power Politics, published by Potomac Books and edited by C-FAM senior vice president Susan Yoshihara and C-FAM senior fellow Douglas Sylva.

Yoshihara analyzes U.S. circumstances in a chapter entitled “American Demographic Exceptionalism and the Future of U.S. Military Power.” She notes that alone among leading Western powers, the U.S. has resisted international depopulation trends.

Yoshihara cites an American affinity for religious practice, the country’s inherent optimism and its capacity to accommodate immigration and utilize manpower constructively as key factors underlying this demographic exceptionalism. But while this relative demographic strength should assist in preserving America’s preeminent global position, in recent years it has contributed to short-sighted political decision-making that has postponed necessary military investment in order to fund the skyrocketing costs of social programs.

“American demographic exceptionalism — in particular its robust fertility rate that gives it a strong and growing workforce—has ironically allowed Washington to defer these tough choices too long,” Yoshihara comments. “Policymakers should seize the demographic advantage to chart the way ahead.”

Cursory analysis of China’s exceptionally robust economic growth, combined with its immense population, has led to predictions the rising Asian power will soon eclipse American might. Gordon Chang counters that demographic constraints stemming from China’s draconian one-child population control program instead suggest “this century will not be kind to the Chinese.”

Perhaps the most unforgiving constraint is the “age wave” of elderly people now engulfing China, occurring just as its working-age population commences a steep and seemingly irreversible decline due to the one-child policy. Together, these factors will imperil continued economic growth, and a nation of one-child families likely will generate a permanent shortage of potential military recruits.

Another serious problem is the phenomenon of female “gendercide,” caused through sex-selective abortions and female infanticides by families determined that their only child will be a boy, which has led to an abnormal shortage of young women.

Chang says Chinese policymakers are well aware of their country’s adverse demographics, especially in comparison to India’s rapidly growing population. Sums up Chang, “Beijing’s supremos at this moment know they are playing a bad hand.”

Lisa Curtis considers India’s situation in the final case study in Population Decline and the Remaking of Great Power Politics. According to demographic projections India’s population will surpass China’s around 2025 and could exceed China’s by 500 million people by the time it peaks later in the century.

This means that for the next two decades, India will enjoy a “youth bulge” even as China’s population grows ever grayer. This “demographic dividend” will lead to considerable challenges, Curtis acknowledges, in dealing with issues such as education, urbanization, labor force modernization and the potential radicalization of India’s large and fast-growing Muslim minority.

But so long as its leaders address these problems intelligently, and cope effectively with India’s strategic competition with China, Curtis predicts “India’s youthful population will likely serve as an asset in fulfilling its geopolitical ambitions and contribute to its ability to project power beyond the Indian periphery and into the broader Asia-Pacific region.” Note:  Tom McFeely writes for the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute. This article originally appeared in the pro-life group’s Friday Fax publication and is used with permission.