Asia Tomorrow, Gray and Male

September 1, 1998 Topic: Society Regions: Asia Tags: NeoconservatismAcademiaCold WarPax AmericanaHeads Of State

Asia Tomorrow, Gray and Male

Mini Teaser: Barring the contingency of utter catastrophe, we can already estimate, often in surprising detail, what lies in store for East Asia in demographic terms over the next fifteen to twenty years.

by Author(s): Nicholas Eberstadt

Certain kinds of developments, though rife with consequence for
economics, politics, and strategy, are intrinsically difficult to
anticipate. Wars, revolutions, and economic panics are typical cases
in point. Yet there are also important sorts of developments that are
less subject to historical caprice or political calculation, more
likely to unfold in a regular manner over a relatively long time, and
thus inherently easier to envision in advance. Population change is
one of these.

Barring the contingency of utter catastrophe, we can already
estimate, often in surprising detail, what lies in store for East
Asia in demographic terms over the next fifteen to twenty years. Such
projections point to a number of new and unfamiliar conditions for
the region-each of which could have sweeping ramifications. One
involves the ratio of young to elderly in a population, a factor that
necessarily influences pension burdens, savings rates, and hence
general economic conditions. Another concerns manpower availability,
which also affects economic potential and thus, ultimately, national
power. A third-imbalanced sex ratios-can portend social tension and,
possibly, political trouble. While the social and economic
implications of demographic facts are harder to discern than the
facts themselves, some conclusions may be reached with a reasonably
high level of confidence. Taken together, these implications in turn
form a significant element of the context in which political and
strategic dynamics will play out.

Knowing the Numbers

East Asia's population today stands at roughly 2 billion people,
accounting for about a third of the world's population. Approximately
1.5 billion of those 2 billion reside in Northeast Asia (that is,
mainland China, Taiwan, Japan, and Korea), the other half billion in
Southeast Asia (that is, the countries between Burma to the west and
Vietnam and the Philippines to the east). East Asia also contains
three of the eight most populous states in the world today-China,
number one with about 1.25 billion inhabitants; Indonesia, number
four with about 200 million; and Japan, number eight with about 125
million-as well as five other states with over 40 million people.

To a considerable degree, East Asia's population profile between now
and the year 2015 has been set already by past mortality and
fertility trends. Despite a series of regional paroxysms that claimed
millions of lives in the post--World War II era-the Korean and
Vietnam Wars, China's Great Leap Forward, Indonesia's post--Sukarno
convulsions, and Cambodia's Khmer Rouge period, among others-average
life expectancy at birth for East Asia as a whole is believed to have
jumped from a bit over 40 to almost 70 between the early 1950s and
the late 1990s. In both Northeast and Southeast Asia, the tempo of
mortality decline has exceeded the world average for almost half a
century. Only in Burma, Cambodia, East Timor, and Laos do life
expectancies rank below the mean for contemporary developing regions
as a whole.

Like mortality, fertility has also fallen dramatically. In the late
1950s, only Japan reported a total fertility rate (births per woman
per lifetime) that, if maintained, would have resulted in long--term
population stabilization. Elsewhere in East Asia, the average woman
was typically bearing five to seven children. By the late 1990s,
however, fertility levels appear to have dropped roughly to the
replacement level for East Asia as a whole, a breathtaking
transformation of childbearing patterns in just four decades. Apart
from Mongolia and possibly the still--mysterious Democratic People's
Republic of Korea (DPRK), sub--replacement fertility is today
characteristic of every Northeast Asian locale-including China, where
fertility rates are lower than those in the United States. In
Southeast Asia, too, fertility levels have dropped by over half since
the late 1950s, with most of the decline having taken place in the
past twenty years. In Singapore and Thailand, fertility levels are
well below replacement; in Indonesia and Vietnam levels are rapidly
falling toward replacement. East Asia's population trends between now
and the year 2015 will also be shaped by the intervening trajectories
for mortality and fertility (migration plays only a marginal role in
the region's current population dynamics). Those trajectories, of
course, remain a matter of conjecture-although usually fertility
rates are harder to guess at than mortality rates, depending as they
do upon such unknowable, and possibly fickle, qualities as future
parental preferences. Yet those imponderables notwithstanding, the
various fertility estimates now contemplated for East Asia do not
substantially alter the region's demographic profile for the year
2015. If the UN Population Division's current "medium" scenario
proves accurate, for example, East Asia's population will rise to
about 2.25 billion in 2015-roughly a 13 percent increase. The high
variant implies about 18 percent growth, the low variant about 8
percent-but in the great scheme of things, these are not dramatic
differences. More to the point, virtually everyone who will be in the
East Asian labor force, marriage pool, or retirement population in
the year 2015 is already alive today-and demographic techniques
permit us to estimate their numbers two decades hence with fair
precision. We can therefore talk today with reasonable confidence
about East Asia's coming demographic situation, and its coming
demographic problems.

The End of "Unprecedented Growth"

In the generation just past, demographic specialists and informed
non--specialists alike spoke of the "unprecedented growth" in human
numbers in East Asia. To many observers, East Asia's population
explosion evoked images of a host of Malthusian dangers: unending
food shortages, mounting poverty, labor markets and cities
overburdened by new, discontented job--seekers, and increasingly
fragile governments confronted by ever deeper domestic problems.

As we now know, this grim presentiment was far off the mark. Despite
rapid population growth, East Asian economies grew robustly, and
regional political stability gradually increased rather than
diminished. Population growth will continue in East Asia in the
decades immediately ahead, but at far slower rates. For East Asia as
a whole, the UN Population Division's "medium variant" projections
contemplate average annual increases of about 0.8 percent between
1995 and 2015. (That compares with an estimated 1.6 percent annual
rate of natural increase in 1975--95, and 2.1 percent a year in the
1955--75 period.) In absolute terms, this would mean an increase of
350 million in the 1995--2015 period-a large number, to be sure, but
distinctly less than the estimated 490 million increment of 1975--95
or the 480 million increase of 1955--75. In Southeast Asia, current
"high variant" projections would make for absolute population
increases slightly greater than those recorded in the 1980s and
1990s. Even those high variant projections, however, imply a slower
growth rate than any recorded for the area since 1945. For East Asia,
all projections point to smaller annual absolute additions to the
area's population after 2010 than those experienced in the 1960s;
some variants indicate smaller increments than those of the early

The dramatic slowdown in anticipated demographic growth is the direct
consequence of the broad movement toward replacement or
sub--replacement fertility rates in the region's major population
centers. Prolonged sub--replacement fertility could in fact bring
some East Asian countries to the point of zero population growth, or
even population decline, by the year 2015. All projections, for
example, suggest that Japan's population will shrink after the year
2010. Under the low set of fertility assumptions, too, population
growth would virtually cease by 2015 in both Thailand and the
Republic of Korea. Under comparable assumptions, population decline
for Northeast Asia as a whole would commence around 2020.

East Asian radical fertility declines beg the question of causation.
Demographers, unfortunately, are able to offer precious few explanations
that are neither trivial nor riddled with important exceptions. To be
sure: mass education, rapid urbanization, income growth, and anti--natal
population programs are among the many factors often mentioned in fertility
decline for East Asia and elsewhere. But for now it is impossible to offer
any reliable quantitative estimates of the impact on fertility decline of
these diverse possible influences. Lacking a workable general theory for
fertility change, demography is also consequently unable to predict
fertility trends with any accuracy over the long run.

We do know, however, that future population issues in Asia will
differ from those of the Cold War era in fundamental respects. For
the region as a whole, accommodating burgeoning human numbers will no
longer be the pressing concern. But a host of new demographic
concerns loom on East Asia's horizon. Three of the most important are
rapid population aging, declining manpower availability, and
unnaturally imbalanced sex ratios.

The Graying of East Asia

East Asia's revolution in life expectancy, in conjunction with its
transition toward replacement or even sub--replacement fertility
levels, has set the stage for a dramatic process of population aging.
In many countries, the aging of populations will proceed very
swiftly, demographically speaking. The "graying" of East Asia is sure
to have major social and economic ramifications; it may have
political repercussions as well.

As recently as the early 1980s, nearly all of East Asia's populations
were young: the median age for both Northeast and Southeast Asia
stood in the low twenties or high teens. At that time, persons 65
years and older accounted for just over 5 percent of the total
population. As recently as 1985, children under 15 outnumbered
persons 65 and older by five to one in Northeast Asia, and by over
ten to one in Southeast Asia.

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