“The impending tempo of population aging in China is very nearly as rapid as anything history has yet seen,” says Nicholas Eberstadt in “Power and Population in Asia” in the Hoover Institution’s Policy Review, No. 123. “Although China’s population will hardly be as elderly as Japan’s by 2025, its impending aging process promises to generate problems of a sort that Japan does not have to face. The first relates to its national pension system: Japan’s may be financially vulnerable, but China’s is nonexistent.”
At this juncture … sub-replacement fertility is thought to characterize every country and locale in East Asia save tiny Mongolia. In Southeast Asia, Singapore and Thailand are already sub-replacement societies, and Indonesia appears to be rapidly closing in on the replacement fertility level. As for South and Central Asia, Sri Lanka and Kazakhstan are outposts of sub-replacement fertility within the region.
Russia’s decline is much farther along.
Modern Russia has given the lie to the ameliorative presumption that literate, industrialized societies cannot suffer long-term health declines during times of peace. According to Moscow’s official calculations, the country’s life expectancy was lower in 2001 than it had been in 1961-62, four decades earlier. For Russia’s men, life expectancy had dropped by almost five years over that interim–but female life expectancy was also slightly down over that period. This anomalous circumstance could not be entirely attributed to the deformities of communist rule, for both male and female life expectancy were lower in 2001 than in 1991, the last year of Soviet power….
In absolute arithmetic terms, this Russian mortality crisis qualifies as a catastrophe of historic proportions. Over the extended period between 1965 and 2001, age-standardized mortality for Russia’s men rose by over 40 percent. Perhaps even more surprising, it also increased for Russia’s women by over 15 percent.
Another looming problem for East Asia is the sex ratio, expressed in terms of the number of males for every 100 females.
China’s tilt toward biologically impossible sex ratios at birth seems to have coincided with the inauguration of its coercive antenatal “one child policy,” which was unveiled in 1979. Is Beijing’s population control program responsible for these amazing distortions? A tentative answer would be yes–but not entirely. In other Chinese or Confucian-heritage populations where oppressive population control strictures were not in force–Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea–unnatural sex ratios at birth also emerged in the 1980s and 1990s. In these other spots, the confluence of son preference, low fertility, and sex-selective abortion likewise have distorted the sex ratio at birth–although nowhere so much as in China today. In most of those other locales, moreover, recent data suggest that sex ratios at birth are lower than they were in the early 1990s (Taiwan, South Korea) or even the 1980s (Singapore), while China’s rise shows no signs of reversing…. Only two provinces in the entire country–the non-Han regions of Tibet and Xinjiang–reported sex ratios within the biologically normal human range. At the other end, three provinces (Hubei, Guangdong, and Anhui) tabulated child sex ratios of almost 130–while three others (Hainan, Hunan, and Jiangxi) returned with ratios of over 130.
So where can we look to balance these trends?
Interestingly enough, the Asian Pacific power with the most strategically favorable profile may be one that we have not yet discussed: the United States.
By the UNPD’s [United Nations Population Division’s] medium variant projections, the United States is envisioned to grow from 285 million in 2000 to 358 million in 2025. In absolute terms, this would be by far the greatest increase projected for any industrialized society; in relative terms, this projected 26 percent increment would almost exactly match the proportional growth of the Asia/Eurasia region as a whole. Under these trajectories, the United States would remain the world’s third most populous country in 2025, and by the early 2020s, the U.S. population growth rate–a projected 0.7 percent per year–would in this scenario actually be higher than that of Indonesia, Thailand, or virtually any country in East Asia, China included.
In these projections, U.S. population growth accrues from two by no means implausible assumptions: (1) continued receptivity to newcomers and immigrants and (2) continuing “exceptionalism” in U.S. fertility patterns. (The United States today reports about 2.0 births per woman, as against about 1.5 in Western Europe, roughly 1.4 in Eastern Europe, and about 1.3 in Japan.) Given its sources, such population growth would tend, quite literally, to have a rejuvenating effect on the U.S. population profile–that is to say, it would slow down the process of population aging. Between 2000 and 2025, in these UNPD projections, median age in the United States would rise by just two years (from 35.6 to 37.6). By 2025, the U.S. population would be more youthful, and aging more slowly, than that of China or any of today’s “tigers.” (Furthermore, to state the obvious, neither a resurgence of HIV/AIDS nor an eruption of imbalanced sex ratios at birth look to be part of the U.S. prospect over the decades immediately ahead.)
Of course, such population projections always assume that humans will just keep doing what they always do, regardless of changing conditions. Fortunately, most humans have minds capable of adapting their behaviors to new circumstances.