Demographics Is Not Destiny

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Demographics Is Not Destiny

Who will win the Sino-Indian great game? There are plenty of important factors, but is demographics one of them?

Late last month, a team from the redoubtable RAND Corporation published a report titled China and India, 2025: A Comparative Assessment. The document is free online and well worth your time. As its title suggests, the report attempts to trace the arc of Sino-Indian relations 15 years hence. The authors use four metrics to compare the rising Asian titans, namely demographics, macroeconomic performance, science and technology, and defence budgets and procurement. They take on big questions: ‘Who’s ahead? By how much? and Why?’ After assessing the current state of play, they peer ahead in an attempt ‘to assess the balance’ between the advantages each country will boast and the disadvantages that will fetter its ambitions.

In effect, they take on a question often comes up when I discuss China and India with non-specialist audiences, particularly schoolteachers and high-school students: who’s going to win the Sino-Indian great game? That’s a fitting question for sports-crazed Americans who, like me, are forever looking forward to the World Series, the Super Bowl, or whatever championship game looms. The answer I usually give is that it’s a philosophical question demanding a philosophical answer. If we believe that liberal societies unlock the capabilities of their citizens better than authoritarian societies—that they allow free rein to the entrepreneurial spirit, for instance, or more readily correct past policy mistakes—then the answer is that freewheeling India will surpass authoritarian China over the very long term.

Ergo, I give India the nod in the long-term strategic competition despite significant economic and military shortfalls. The RAND team seems to concur with this from-the-hip analysis. They observe that China boasts hefty advantages by hard-power measures such as technology and defence spending, and that these advantages will likely persist or widen by 2025. Barring some extraordinary turn of events, Chinese defence spending will at least double the Indian figure throughout the period under study. On the other hand, they conclude that:

‘Prospects for India to pursue policies that will enhance its competitive position vis-à-vis China are better than are the reverse prospects. This is because India’s political-economic system entails at least a moderately greater degree of economic freedom than does China’s, and this provides an environment more conducive to entrepreneurial, innovative, and inventive activity that may favour India’s position in the long-term competition between the two countries.’

The demographic comparisons in China and India, 2025 are especially intriguing. Assuming present trends persist—and straight-line projections are always hazardous—India will surmount China both in overall population and in the most economically productive segments of the populace within two decades. Both countries will top out around 1.5 billion, but China will start to decline in numbers afterward, yielding the title of world’s most populous state to its neighbour.

How will demographics influence Chinese and Indian strategic behaviour? It seems logical to posit that declining numbers induce caution—and thus conservative policies—in national leaderships. Smaller families object to sending the nation’s youth off to war. Wise leaders conserve increasingly precious assets like manpower. Think about Japan. As Japanese population numbers plunge, Tokyo is acutely conscious of demographic limits on its foreign and defence policies. Indeed, some mention of these limits commonly finds its way into official policy and strategy statements such as the National Defence Programme Guidelines.

As a corollary, beneficiaries of swelling population numbers seemingly enjoy the luxury of more venturesome policies. Swift population growth—accompanied by mounting industrial prowess and other emblems of national vigour—bred confidence if not overconfidence in rising great powers such as Imperial Germany, Imperial Japan, and the United States a century ago. Such powers asserted new prerogatives in their home regions, often at the expense of static or declining neighbours. The same dynamic has arguably emboldened China—witness Beijing’s in-your-face behaviour in the ‘near seas’ over the past few years.

But in reality there exists no linear, cause-and-effect relationship between demographic trends and strategic choices. States are complex entities, as are societies. Regime type matters. Political leaders exercise free will within the constraints imposed by raw power, popular opinion, and the countless factors that buffet the ship of state this way or that. The nature of a demographic shock—its nature, its scale, and whether it occurs suddenly or gradually—counts as well. You get the idea. It’s probably true that demographic decline, swift or slow, makes for caution in ruling circles. But many ‘intervening variables’, as political scientists like to say, come into play when making and executing strategy. Forecasting degenerates into educated guesswork.

A few years back, some friends and I were discussing this over adult beverages—in vino veritas?—and hit on the idea of looking way, way back to classical antiquity for insight into the workings of demographic decline. We alighted on a historical episode when two powers suffered crushing demographic blows during a trial of arms yet responded in radically different fashion. The case was the Peloponnesian War, a 27-year conflict (431-404 B.C.) between alliances led by rival city-states Athens and Sparta. One of history’s first soldier-scholars, the Athenian general Thucydides, chronicled the rival claimants’ struggle for supremacy in the classical Greek world.

The belligerents could hardly have been more different. Sparta was an ultraconservative military oligarchy, whereas Athens was a freewheeling direct democracy. But rather than compel both leaderships to act cautiously, demographic shocks seemed to reaffirm, reinforce, and exaggerate each society’s natural tendencies. Spartans inclined to conservatism, and their native caution became more and more pronounced over time. Indeed, they sued for peace after Athenians took a trifling force of infantrymen—292 in all—captive on the island of Sphacteria. (The peace proved short-lived.) Manpower had grown so scarce that the army could ill afford even minor losses.

Spartan demographic woes were partly self-inflicted. Infants deemed unfit were ruthlessly culled out to keep the genetic stock—the raw material for the classical world’s most fearsome infantry—unsullied. The practice of discarding imperfect infants imposed limits on the expansion of the Spartan citizenry even in normal times, but a natural disaster amplified the manpower dilemmas afflicting Sparta. An earthquake demolished the city in 464 B.C., killing off the flower of military-age youth. An entire rising generation of ‘Spartiates’—the elite caste that manned the front ranks of the phalanx, or battle formation—was crushed when a gymnasium collapsed on them. One scholar estimates that Spartiate numbers fell by nearly three-quarters during the years preceding the Peloponnesian War.

Few armed forces adjust easily to such a blow. The combination of misguided policy and natural disaster compounded Sparta’s manpower travails while touching off a slave revolt and disrupting the supply of forced labour on which the state relied. Rather than act boldly to expand the recruiting pool, however, the leadership tinkered around the margins. Reluctant to innovate, Spartans fretted constantly about battlefield losses to Athens and its allies. Minor combat losses engendered major strategic effects in ruling circles, constraining both Spartan strength and Spartan ambitions. While the Spartan alliance ultimately prevailed, it did so largely because the leadership made fewer mistakes than its enemies.

Speaking of whom, Athenians inclined to adventurism, and they took ever greater risks during the struggle. Athenian law imposed no eugenics regimen. At the outset of war, ‘first citizen’ Pericles convinced the ruling Assembly to order residents of Attica within the city walls. This measure allowed the leadership to refuse battle with the Spartan army, and to pursue a limited, indirect naval offensive against enemy territory. Pericles’ strategy shielded the populace from direct Spartan ravages while sparing Athens the burden of land defence. But it also consigned Athenians to misery, moral upheaval, and death when a plague broke out within the city’s cramped confines.

The pestilence claimed up to one-third of Athenian lives in the early years of war. Sickness and repeated military setbacks sharply reduced the reserve of experienced rowers and steersmen for the Athenian navy, the preeminent seagoing force of the age. Manpower shortages compelled the Assembly to modify the navy’s recruitment policy during the latter stages of the war. Lawmakers loosened citizenship requirements to increase the manpower available to crew Athenian triremes, or triple-decker rowed warships. Preparedness to rethink and jettison longstanding practices had its benefits, letting the navy renew its strength and preserve its high-seas supremacy.

Athenians’ freedom from dogma thus let them adapt in selected areas like naval recruitment. On the other hand, it left them with little natural resistance to strategic adventurism—especially once moral decay set in amid the plague’s horrors. There were few institutional checks on decision-making—a problem magnified when Pericles fell victim to the plague, silencing an influential voice for moderation. Policy became rash and impulsive. The Assembly acted on advice from demagogues who urged brutal treatment of defeated enemies and wayward allies alike. Despite its manpower shortfall, the city hurled itself into reckless military enterprises, most famously a ruinous invasion of faraway Sicily. Its encounter with the Sicilian city-state of Syracuse cost Athens a massive expeditionary force, including an army and the bulk of the Athenian navy.

Sensible leaders craft policies to achieve important goals at the least cost in finite resources. Such a conservative outlook ought to be especially pronounced in the decision for and conduct of war, an undertaking pervaded by chance, uncertainty, and dark passions like fear and spite. War is a matter of national survival. By venturing as little as possible, a state avoids losing everything. The state that sees its populace depleted yet dares all could lose all. It husbands its resources to guard against a doomsday scenario. Sobriety, then, appears to be the best outlook for the rulers of any state beset with demographic woes. Judging from the Peloponnesian War, however, some states defy straightforward cost/benefit logic.

What does the Greek precedent say about the future of China and India? Is classical Athens a model for Asia’s future, will the Spartan pattern take hold in Beijing or New Delhi, or does something quite different lie in store? China would appear to be cast in the role of Sparta. It is an authoritarian society that has manipulated the makeup of its populace (via the one-child policy) and faces demographic decline as a result. But unlike Sparta, China is in little danger of seeing its military manpower shrink to near zero, preventing the state from fielding effective armed forces and exposing the regime to overthrow from within. It enjoys economies of scale of which Spartan leaders could have only dreamt.

What about India? Will it play the part of Athens, its democratic forebear? It seems doubtful that New Delhi would yield to reckless adventurism. It will be quite some time before any Indian manpower surplus over China yields strategic advantage. A gradual demographic crossover applies little spur for rash action. The nature of the Indian regime, furthermore, imposes serious checks on erratic, Athenian-style strategy. The New Delhi regime isn’t a direct democracy, and thus appears far less prone to mercurial decision-making. Institutional checks built into the system make an enormous difference.

Neither China nor India—continent-spanning countries both—is likely to suffer a counterpart to the Spartan earthquake or the Athenian plague, namely a sudden, grievous demographic blow that imperils the state’s future as a diplomatic and military power. Still, the Peloponnesian War offers Asia-watchers metrics for charting future trends. Analysing the nature of a regime, the character of the larger society over which that regime presides, and the nature of a demographic shock could provide insight into the Sino-Indian competition—building on the groundwork admirably laid by the RAND authors.


James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the US Naval War College. The views voiced here are his alone.