China’s low fertility rate means that its population will decline and age over the next few decades. Last week, the FT reported that the Chinese population had already started to decline – a few years earlier than the UN predicted.
A large, expanding and young population has led to the rise of nations for much of human history. The great powers needed hot bodies to put themselves on the battlefield and citizens to tax. Napoleon’s conquests were preceded by a demographic boom in France in the 18th century. In the 20th century, the French population had fallen behind Germany and Great Britain; a source of justified anguish for the French elite.
But a declining and aging population may not have the same grim consequences in the 21st century. The struggles of the great powers of the future are unlikely to be decided by vast land battles. In the recent war between Azerbaijan and Armenia, unmanned drones played a vital role on the battlefield. Britain’s recent strategic review has downsized the military, while investing heavily in technology.
If technological prowess, rather than hordes of young men, is the key to future power, China is well placed. The country has advanced capabilities in areas such as robotics and artificial intelligence. With a population of 1.4 billion – which is likely to decline only slowly until the middle of the century – China will not be short of manpower either.
It is the structure rather than the size of the Chinese population that will be the real challenge. By 2040, about 30% of the country will be over 60 years old. More older people will need to be supported by a smaller working-age population, which will slow economic growth.
China may never reach the per capita wealth levels of the United States. But even if the average Chinese are only half as rich as the average American, China’s economy would still easily outstrip America’s in overall size.
China will soon lose its title as the world’s most populous nation. The populations of India and China are roughly equal. But by the end of the century, UN projections suggest India’s population will be 1.5 billion, compared to China’s 1 billion. (Some other university studies place the Chinese population in 2100 below 800 m).
But India’s economy is only a fifth the size of China’s. Thus, the wealth and power gap between the two countries will not be reduced quickly.
China’s demographic collapse was accelerated by its one-child policy, which was abandoned in 2015. But Chinese demographic trends are quite typical of East Asia. Japan’s population peaked at 128.5 million in 2010 and is declining. The UN predicts that the population of Japan will be only 75 million by the end of the century. The trends in South Korea are similar.
Population shrinking and aging is also occurring in parts of Europe. The Italian population has already started to decline. Even the United States is slowing down. The latest census shows that America’s population is now 331.5 million – but growing at its slowest rate since the 1930s. Demographers believe that America, like Europe and Asia ‘East, may soon be grappling with the problems of an aging population.
Overall, the world’s population is expected to continue growing from 7.8 billion today to around 11 billion by 2100 – most of the growth in Africa and South Asia. Africa’s population alone is expected to double by 2050.
By the weight of numbers, countries like Nigeria and Pakistan will gain global influence. But they are also likely to remain relatively poor and politically unstable – with climate change worsening the outlook for much of sub-Saharan Africa. Some of the fastest growing population is taking place in already failing states such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Niger.
Demographics will continue to shape global politics, as it always has. But the historic link between a growing, young population and a growing national power gives way to something more complex. The biggest divide may now be between rich and middle-income countries – where populations are static or declining – and poorer countries, where populations are growing rapidly.
If left unchecked, the natural tendency to correct would be massive migration from the South to Europe, North America and East Asia. But East Asians are currently much less open to immigration than the West. Even though the Japanese population could almost halve by 2100, the Japanese cling to social homogeneity rather than mass migration. China, which has a very ethnic view of citizenship, will likely make similar choices.
In contrast – despite the current political wrangling over immigration in the US and the EU – the West is likely to remain relatively open to migrants. Western societies will thus gain economic dynamism. But they could also lose political stability – since the backlash against immigration has helped spur the rise of politicians like Donald Trump.
The big geopolitical question will not be who has the largest population – but whether China or the West made the right call for mass migration.