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China’s shrinking population and constraints on its future power

People wearing face masks walk in a subway station in Beijing during rush hour on Dec. 20, 2022, amid a rise in COVID-19 infections. (Kyodo)==KyodoNO USE JAPAN

According to official U.N. estimates, April 2023 is the month during which, in all likelihood, India will overtake China in population. That is a fascinating story in and of itself, since China has been the world’s most populous country for centuries.

But the real significance of this story, especially for geopolitics, is not about who’s number one. Rather, combined with other demographic realities, the trends send a clear message that China is not 10 feet tall. Any sense of Western defeatism based on fears about the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) economic and strategic rise should be tempered with the many constraints affecting that country, beginning with its demographics. None of this is to trivialize the significance of China’s rise or the challenges it could pose to the United States and its allies along the way. But it is far from obvious that, hegemonically speaking, time is on China’s side. That observation should provide some tempering perspective on the question of how soon China might use force to attempt reunification with Taiwan or try to displace the United States strategically in the broader Indo-Pacific region. For some U.S. scholars, these kinds of demographic trend lines may persuade Beijing that its window of opportunity to carry out aggression is closing — meaning that it should use force soon. But there are huge risks and downsides to such an attempt given the current correlation of military forces, and the difficulty of achieving a decisive victory in a great-power war. Thus, a more compelling interpretation is that China’s presumed future dominance is not preordained on any timetable. The PRC is, and will be, formidable, to be sure. And it is dangerous. But it is not poised to establish hegemony in either the first or second half of the 21st century as some kind of historical inevitability.

Back to the data. What is fascinating is not just that India will, at the level of about 1.4 billion citizens, slightly overtake China sometime this month (or at least, let’s say, this year — acknowledging the uncertainties in these kinds of population counts). The curves displaying their population trajectories over time have very different shapes. China’s population is, in fact, already declining. Its population will likely decline faster and faster in the decades to come — even if the PRC government has other wishes — because Chinese citizens are already choosing to have far fewer babies than had been expected when the earlier one-child policy was gradually relaxed, then lifted, in the last couple decades. Those trends can be expected to continue in a society that is becoming richer, and more expensive, and also has a gradually improving social safety net and retirement system. Indeed, according to current projections, China’s population is likely to drop below 1 billion by 2080 and below 800 million by 2100. Those specific numbers will surely change; the downward shape of the curve almost certainly will not.

India by contrast will keep growing quickly for a while. Its population is projected to approach 1.7 billion by 2060 before descending back to about 1.5 billion by century’s end.

These numbers are of course rough, and tentative. Herculean policy interventions — or natural catastrophe, nuclear war, or other exogenous shocks — could change them. But they are extrapolations of trend lines that are already underway, already evident in the demographic data, and consistent with what we know about demographic trend lines in other modernizing societies. They are far from conjectural.

Being number one may not be all good news for India. A larger workforce is a positive. But the resources, jobs, infrastructure, education, and health care requirements of a growing population will pose huge challenges to New Delhi. Long term, these demographic dynamics may promise a better 22nd century for China than for India — and certainly for the quality of life of the typical Chinese citizen relative to her or his Indian counterpart.

However, for the coming years and decades of the 21st century, the demographic transition in China will constitute a major constraint on the growth of Chinese power. A working-age population that peaked in 2011 at more than 900 million will have declined by nearly a quarter, to some 700 million, by mid-century. These workers will have to provide by then for nearly 500 million Chinese aged 60 and over, compared with 200 million today. America’s social security challenges seem like a policy picnic by comparison.

By century’s end, according to the predictions, the United States will have well over 400 million inhabitants or more than half of China’s expected total. China will still be much bigger in population, of course, but the two countries will not be in totally different leagues.

Factoring in NATO and key East Asian allies, the Western alliance system already has a billion people today — 70% of China’s total. Yes, many U.S. allies face declining demographics as well. But overall numbers within this bloc are likely to hold relatively steady, as modest American (and Filipino) population growth counteracts European, Japanese, and Korean declines.

Thus, not long after 2050, this Western alliance network will collectively approach China in total numbers of citizens. The West will likely remain significantly wealthier on a per capita basis as well. In fact, Brookings economist David Dollar has even speculated that China might overtake the United States in gross domestic product in coming decades — only to have America regain the claim to the world’s biggest economy toward the end of the century.

None of this should make us complacent about the challenges we face from Beijing. But Chinese power and military opportunity are constrained in the short to medium term by American as well as allied military and high-tech preeminence; Chinese power is constrained over the longer term by demographics and resource scarcity. If we in the West can get our own acts together, time is not overwhelmingly on China’s side.