The recent few weeks have seen a lot of discussion around the fact that China’s population has been declining. This has also led to Beijing increasing the number of children allowed per couple to 3.
So, what does this rapidly declining population entail?
It involves quite a lot of things, for sure.
First, we can expect to see declining numbers in the Chinese armed forces. This will have grave implications, not only for the PLA, but also for the wider region. China will also have to pay more for the pensions of its soldiers, and this will impact defense purchases.
Second, it will have ramifications for Chinese foreign policy. Under President Xi Jinping, China has followed an increasingly assertive foreign policy as seen in its “wolf warrior diplomacy.” However, if the number of soldiers in the Chinese PLA drastically decreases, so will China’s weight in international affairs. Although Chinese President Xi Jinping announced plans in 2017 to make the PLA a leaner and more technically advanced force, any sharp decrease in numbers could affect his plans.
It was in the early 1970’s that China started following a one-child policy. Although the one-child policy was later changed to a two-child policy (in 2015), it produced little visible change in the size of families. Moreover, people in rural areas and ethnic minorities were already allowed to have more than one child.
Changing Child Allowances
Will China’s latest move (to increase the number of children per family) be enough?
Many factors are involved.
First, because of high-inflation levels, most Chinese couples are unwilling to have children (let alone 3). Recent data shows that while the urban jobless rate sank to a two-year low of 5% in May this year, the overall unemployment rate for those between the ages of 16-24 ー which consists of graduates from high school and college ー stood at a staggering 13.8%.
Second, for many years, families have had only one child. Despite the 2015 change, having two children has remained rare. Hence, although the government has now allowed 3 children, it is highly unlikely that couples will rush to make this their choice.
Third, the standard of living in different Chinese cities has risen very quickly in the last couple of decades. Hence, unless the government subsidizes things like housing, it is unlikely that this latest move will bring success.
How will it Impact China’s Military Preparedness?
First, there will be less people in the defense services for China and that will be a big worry for Beijing. China has deployed soldiers on multiple fronts ー whether it be in Xinjiang, on the border with India, on the border with North Korea, or elsewhere. All of these posts will face a big resource crunch when the numbers of Chinese people decline.
Second, this trend is unlikely to change in the near future, and hence Chinese policy makers will have to come up with other ideas. At 1.3, China’s fertility rate is already one of the lowest in the world.
Another worry will be how can China continue with its innovations? The good thing about the U.S. is that its population is still increasing, while China’s population is decreasing. On the other hand, India’s population has been holding steady, and this will directly impact the power balance between India and China.
How Will China’s Depopulation Impact Japan and India?
Japan and India are China’s neighbors and there have been territorial issues on both fronts. Earlier last year, Chinese and Indian troops clashed along their disputed border and this led to the first casualties between the two sides in many years. China has also been increasing its pressure on Japan, especially this year, with intrusions into Japanese territorial waters by Chinese vessels.
On the other hand, Tokyo has also upped the ante in the last few months. Recently, Japan and the EU mentioned Taiwan for the first time in a joint statement.
Hence, countries like India and Japan should take additional urgent steps in this regard, while cooperating with other stakeholders in the region like Australia and the United States (which are members of the Quad).
The Other Side
The flip side of the problem is that it is likely to mean that China will move more and more into automation, even in the realm of defense. China is the world leader in drones, and this means that other countries in the region will need to be prepared for their use in many different ways. Countries like India and Japan need to be especially wary on this count.
This also means that instead of a full-pronged war, China may be tempted to indulge in low-intensity conflicts. This has already been seen on the Galwan front between India and China.
Beijing has also made tremendous advances in space technology and this should be a worry for all neighboring countries, as civilian space technology also has military applications.
Another worry could be China using soldiers that are not strictly part of its official military (mercenaries, to be exact) to tide over the crunch in soldiers. This could be very dangerous for other countries, especially neighbors like Japan and India.
China is not alone in the region in worrying about depopulation. Japan also faces similar problems, and that should worry policy makers in Tokyo, too.
From all of these perspectives, China’s declining fertility rates are sure to bring about a host of challenges and changes, not only for China but also for its neighbors.
Author: Dr. Rupakjyoti Borah
Dr Rupakjyoti Borah is a Senior Research Fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies, Tokyo. The views expressed are personal.