Flashpoints | Security | East Asia

Too Old to Fight? Will Demographic Shifts Alter Asia’s Geostrategic Landscape? 

The demographic situation in the Asia-Pacific is quite unlike that of any other epoch of geostrategic competition.

Robert Farley
Too Old to Fight? Will Demographic Shifts Alter Asia’s Geostrategic Landscape? 
Credit: Unsplash

Will demographic realities make it impossible for Japan to pursue an assertive foreign policy in the foreseeable future? And more broadly, do aging demographic trends across the Asia-Pacific suggest that concerns over a new Cold War may be overblown?

First described by Mark Haas, Geriatric Peace Theory suggests that societies with aging populations have economic and political characteristic that make them less likely to engage in militarized foreign policies. Geriatric Peace Theory depends less on the actual availability of young men than on the socioeconomic structures that emerge in “old” societies, in particular the need for young workers to support social safety net and health care systems that aging citizens require. This leaves fewer young people available to fill the needs of military organizations.

Concerns about the combination of demographic trends and strict immigration controls in East Asia are nothing new. However, David Axe wonders whether the impact of COVID-19 will reduce Japan’s already anemic birthrate, resulting in an even more pronounced age “bulge” than analysts had expected. Axe suggests that the Japanese military is already adapting to this problem; while war always requires people, technology determines how many are strictly necessary at any given time, and more importantly the nature of the skill set of the required population. As Axe notes, the Japanese military has demonstrated a preference for equipment that is capital rather than personnel intensive, such as stealth fighters and submarines.

Of course, Japan’s situation is not unusual within its region. China, Taiwan, and South Korea also face demographic tightening, with South Korea suffering an ever worse problem than Japan. This threatens the heath of public finances as aging (and increasingly expensive) retirees are replaced by ever smaller numbers of workers. China decided to embrace demographic disaster during the Cold War with its “one child” policy. This resulted in a short-term capping of the population, but in a long-term demographic problem that will threaten China’s financial and economic health in the 21st century.

The United States until recently had a decided advantage on these questions, largely because of its significant immigration intake. This helped make up for low birthrates in the existing population both through the presence of new immigrants and because those immigrants had children at higher rates than existing Americans. Matthew Yglesias, among others, has suggested that immigration lays at the core of American grand strategy in the 21st century. However, the anti-immigrant attitudes demonstrated by the Trump administration have served to curtail both documented and undocumented migration, just as the COVID-19 disaster seems to have dealt a devastating blow to the U.S. birthrate.

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In any case, the demographic situation in the Asia-Pacific is quite unlike that of any other epoch of geostrategic competition. The potential of a looming age-crunch, exacerbated by COVID-19, might well limit the extent to which Beijing, Tokyo, and others are willing to risk assertive foreign policies. On the other hand, anticipation of future economic problems could incline Chinese and Japanese leaders to think in terms of narrowing “windows of opportunity” that could in turn produce risky behavior.