China's Coming Population Crisis: Guns vs. Canes

“It completely baffles me why they are pushing for taking all those islands now,” a friend wrote to me late last month, referring to Chinese adventurism in the South China Sea.

China’s provocations are frequently attributed to President Xi Jinping’s nationalism, and another reason, almost always ignored, is the ascendance of the People’s Liberation Army in Beijing policymaking circles. Howard French, former bureau chief of the New York Times in Shanghai, suggests another often overlooked factor fueling Beijing’s expansionist impulse—China’s accelerated demographic decline.

China faces a “population crisis.” This term is usually used in the context of exploding birthrates. China’s crisis, however, is the opposite. For almost four decades, Beijing rigorously enforced a “one-child policy.” Now, it’s a “two-child” world in China, but the change came much too late. Even if the Communist Party scrapped all birth restrictions today—not possible because that would be an admission of “one of history’s great blunders” the country would still be facing a sharp fall-off.

Toward the end of last decade, for instance, Beijing’s official demographers expected the workforce to peak this year. In fact, the highpoint came in 2011. Those demographers now expect the country’s population to reach its highest mark in 2028, but a leading Chinese official publicly said that might happen in 2020.

So what does all this have to do with Chinese aggression in its peripheral seas? “This is the moment to go for the ring, if you will, to try to secure every gain that you can, before the huge costs come home,” remarked French to PBS’s Judy Woodruff this month. He was referring to what he called “the biggest aging crisis that the world has ever seen.” “And, therefore we’re seeing China push very hard in its immediate neighborhood, particularly in the maritime zone surrounding China, to kind of create a security zone for itself, trying to lock in the territorial and maritime gains that it can now, before a period of much more difficult choices arises some time in the 2020s.”

French believes that Beijing will soon have to choose not between guns and butter, but between guns and “canes.” He points out the party has been increasing the PLA’s budget by about 11 percent a year since the 1991 Gulf War, but there is “no way that China will be able to sustain that sort of military expenditure.” Why? “The most important reason is because of its population changes.”

China faces a closing window of strategic opportunity. Its horizons are limited by grim demographic prospects, a slowing economy, a fracturing political system, and an environment that has nearly reached the limits of exploitation.

A half-decade ago, many argued that Chinese belligerence was the product of overconfidence, a consequence of the global financial crisis of 2008. Now, after suffering foreign policy setbacks during the last two years—the latest being last month’s unfavorable Hague ruling on the South China Sea—Beijing’s moves could be, as French suggests, the result of leaders thinking that they must move fast while they still can.

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