With Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit to Washington, there's a lot of talk about the rise of China as an economic and military power. But the Chinese may have only a small window in time to assert global dominance -- and Chinese leaders have to know it. China is, perhaps, twenty years from the start of a demographic implosion, one that will cause enormous internal strains, economically and socially.
Could awareness of the hard demographic realities that lie ahead for China drive the Chinese to advance their interests militarily, if need be, before China is hampered by an aging population? Will the Chinese military, alarmed by the coming demographic crisis, push its nation to imperialism, similar to that inflicted on Asia-Pacific by the Japanese through World War II?
An increasingly assertive Chinese military may be providing the answer. Chinese leaders -- party and military -- may well appreciate that China needs to secure its position as a great power before tackling the huge challenges of a graying population.
The root of China's coming demographic crisis is the nation's longstanding one-child policy; that policy has markedly skewed the Chinese population older. Not far off, many more old people and fewer young people mean greater strains on China. Neil Howe and Richard Jackson, with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in the Washington Post about China's demographic plight:
Consider China, which may be the first country to grow old before it grows rich. For the past quarter-century, China has been "peacefully rising," thanks in part to a one-child policy that has allowed both parents to work and contribute to China's boom. But by the 2020s, as the huge Red Guard generation born before the country's fertility decline moves into retirement, they will tax the resources of their children and the state. China's coming age wave -- by 2030 it will be an older country than the United States -- may weaken the two pillars of the current regime's legitimacy: rapidly rising GDP and social stability. Imagine workforce growth slowing to zero while tens of millions of elders sink into indigence without pensions, without health care and without children to support them. China could careen toward social collapse -- or, in reaction, toward an authoritarian clampdown.
Howe and Jackson aren't alone in their assessment of China's future. AT's Thomas Lifson notes that because Chinese parents widely prefer that their one child be a male, aborting female fetuses, there will be about 40 million bachelor males in 2020 unable to find a female spouse. Not only does this reduce births, it provides an ample supply of unattached males suitable for military service. Rodger Baker wrote recently at Stratfor about the end of China's economic miracle in the "not-so-distant future." But the Baker article chiefly addresses the evolution of the Chinese military into a broader leadership role within the country.
For three decades now, the Chinese have been reorienting its military from a primarily land-based border defense to a military that can project its strength in the air, on blue water, and through advanced weapons' technology and systems.
Baker writes that China's rapid economic expansion has led to China's dependence on resources across the globe. China, though not a resource-poor island like Japan, has an estimated population of 1.33 billion. Economic growth and growing consumer demands require that the Chinese obtain resources overseas. China's leadership is seeking to project military power to ostensibly protect vital sea lanes to ensure access to raw materials.
But one wonders if China's buildup in projectable military power doesn't allow for a contingency. China, facing an end to its economic miracle, and facing a demographic crisis in a mere twenty years, may find its beefed up military useful in securing resources sooner through intimidation or, in some cases, through outright seizure -- particularly in Asia, where China's military would have its strongest reach.
Stratfor's Baker writes that the growing power of China's military leaders is permitting Chinese officers to insert themselves into a range of issues that the Chinese military, heretofore, played only a secondary role.
Over the past year, Chinese military officers have made their opinions known, quite openly in Chinese and sometimes even foreign media. They have addressed not only military issues but also Chinese foreign policy and international relations.[i] Though no parallel is perfect -- and as odious as the parallel may be to the Chinese -- there's a disquieting similarity between the rise of imperial Japan and China's rise today. In Japan, the Meiji government (1868-1912) played a primary role in the rapid modernization and industrialization of the Japanese economy. The government, along with Japanese plutocrats, procured Western technology to accelerate modernization -- not only of Japan's economy but military.
In those years, Japan developed into a mercantilist economy, depending on raw materials from abroad to manufacture at home. As Japan moved into the 1920s and 1930s, so grew the country's nationalism and militarism. Japanese militarism and conquest in Asia-Pacific were driven by the aim to create a "sphere of influence" in Asia-Pacific, whereby raw materials access and access to Asian markets would be guaranteed.
The rise of modern China begins with Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s. Deng's rule started China's Meiji period, a period still underway. By all accounts, China isn't yet militarily strong enough to contend with the United States for dominance in Asia-Pacific, but China is making noticeable strides. The United States Defense Department, in its yearly report to Congress about China ("Military and Security Developments Involving the People's Republic of China - 2010"), states:
The pace and scope of China's military modernization have increased over the past decade, enabling China's armed forces to develop capabilities to contribute to the delivery of international public goods, as well as increase China's options for using military force to gain diplomatic advantage or resolve disputes in its favor. [Italics added]
The Defense Department report also notes:
China's leaders describe the initial decades of the 21st century as a "strategic window of opportunity," meaning that regional and international conditions will generally be conducive to China's rise to regional preeminence and global influence, and seek to prolong that window of opportunity as much as possible.
But the Defense Department report highlights a number of factors that could turn China from the peaceful path of international cooperation and competition to an adversarial approach. Two factors are worth mentioning, per the Defense Department report:
Continued economic development remains the foundation of the Party's popular legitimacy and underwrites its military power. Unexpected increases in resource demand, global resource shortages or price shocks, or restricted access to resources, could affect China's strategic outlook and behavior, and might force its leadership to re-examine its resource allocation priorities, including those for the military. [Italics added]
Demographic stresses will increase in the future, creating a structural constraint on China's ability to sustain high growth rates.
To the United States' credit, the nation is anticipating possible threats from an "imperial" China. The United States has a quiet, ongoing effort to strengthen or develop strategic alliances throughout Asia-Pacific, most notably with Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, Thailand, Australia, and Vietnam. The United States is also pushing a "counter basing" strategy, in which Guam figures prominently.
Will China act militarily to secure its place as a great power more quickly, given the demographic crisis it faces in just twenty years? That question may loom larger sooner than most Americans now suspect.