The quiet revolution in Asia

There is a quiet revolution taking place right now in Asia. Barely anyone seems to be noticing. Hardly any experts are talking about it.  An unprecedented population freefall in Japan is leading this geopolitical upheaval. As the island nation loses its great power status, U.S. influence in Asia hangs in the balance.

A new government report from Tokyo says the country will lose a million people a year for the next several decades — plummeting from 127 million to 86 million — witnessing a 30 percent collapse in population by 2060. 

How much has changed? Little more than 20 years ago US president George H.W. Bush heralded a new world order, one which an ascendant Japan would help defend. 

But both capitals now speak of decline. The new report raises even more doubt about who will man the alliance. Tokyo is retiring ships early for lack of young sailors, and its ground troops are too old on average to lead frontline units by American standards.

Some say snowballing costs of health care and entitlements at home mean the United States is not far behind. President Obama’s defense budget proposal including a$500 billion cut now and the awful prospect of another $500 billion reduction on its heels bear this out.

At the same time, China is on the rise: sustained double-digit growth, a chunk of American sovereign debt as collateral and an emerging military already capable of harming U.S. interests in the region. This has led to the conclusion that the United States should acknowledge, and prepare for, its diminishing global role. 

Not so fast. American retrenchment is neither inevitable nor will it make the world a more peaceful place. To the contrary, fewer troops to keep the peace portends a more unstable world, which is bad for U.S. interests.

Nor is China’s much touted rise inevitable. Thirty years into its coercive one-child-per-family policy, Beijing announced a contraction in its workforce this year, sooner than predicted. The United States will soon overtake China in the number of workers per dependent old person, a critical determination of how well a nation can afford its aging population.  Beijing knows its ability to resolve important, manpower-intensive foreign policy goals is diminishing. It may feel compelled to seek military options to settle them before the demographic door slams shut.

The silver lining is that Americans can seize their own demographic advantage to lead the alliance through the coming turbulence in Asia. They alone among citizens of developed countries are having enough children to replace themselves. While the rest of the developed world is losing its working-age population (Russia, Germany, and Japan expect more than a 25 percent drop by 2050), the United States will see a 16 percent gain in the same period. The recruiting advantages of America’s demographic health have allowed the Pentagon to maintain a force younger, fitter and better educated than the country’s general working-age population. This despite the often adverse recruiting milieu of fighting two wars.

It is not possible to draw a straight line between population and power (the United States is much smaller than India and China but creates far more wealth, for example). But demographic decline is clearly associated with strategic pessimism, evident now in both America’s allies and its competitors. While this bodes ill for stability among great powers in the coming decades, it is a good sign for continued American leadership. That’s why Washington should scuttle its current policy of managing an elegant American decline.

Instead, the United States should be courting new security partners in order to accomplish its goal of a strategic foreign policy pivot from Europe to Asia. India, for example, shares American democratic values, bullish demographic prospects, and concern about China’s rise.

The American demographic edge can buy some time to put the nation’s fiscal house in order before facing the draconian defense cuts its allies have made. It is already affording Americans a few key economic and military advantages over its competitors.

The world will look a lot different in the coming century, but that doesn’t mean the U.S. presence should recede.  The American demographic advantage can make the difference — so long as Washington doesn’t squander it.