Two weeks ago, China’s National Health Authority announced it would attempt to discourage abortions and make fertility treatment more readily accessible to boost low birth rates. That development will be of interest to international relations realists, who use figures about China’s demographic aging as a key factor in predicting the likelihood that Beijing will attempt to invade Taiwan sooner rather than later. It will also be of interest to those who disagree with that prediction method.
The background to the announcement is that, according to Reuters, China’s birth rate dropped to 1.16 in 2021, well below the replacement rate of 2.1. The Financial Times, meanwhile, has previously noted that the figure had fallen by just under 30 percent between 2019 and 2021, “the largest two-year fall since the country’s Great Famine between 1959 and 1961.”
China is by no means the only country to be dealing with stark demographic aging, and in the immediate term, some of this accelerated decline has been caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. But the downward trend has been ongoing for decades, and it’s compounded by increasing life expectancy. As Foreign Affairs points out: “In 1978, the median age of a Chinese citizen was 21.5 years. By 2021, it had risen to 38.4, surpassing that of the United States. If China continues along its current trajectory … its median age could rise to over 50 by 2050.” Furthermore, its population may have already begun to shrink. The World Economic Forum has predicted it could shrink to less than one third of its peak by 2100.
For certain international relations realists in the U.S., these projections translate into a limited window of opportunity for China to invade Taiwan. At the end of March, Tufts University associate professor Michael Beckley, for instance, told Nikkei that China’s situation now could be compared to Imperial Japan in the 1930s before going into World War II, or Imperial Germany before 1914, “terrified of declining relative to Russia and France” before launching World War I. In China’s case, slowed growth resulting from the demographic shift of losing “more than 70 million working-age adults and gain[ing] more than 100 million senior citizens just by the early 2030s” means that China’s power will peak between the late 2020s and early 2030s. That, he believes, means that while there is a relative military shift in China’s favor right now, with its modernization and capacity increases currently moving faster than the U.S. (from a base level far below the U.S.), it will not be sustainable for much longer, and this could see a military reaction from Beijing.
Through that lens — which includes the idea that on current trends the U.S. could reduce the gap in military aged men to around a quarter of what it is now by 2080 — the “best” time for China to invade Taiwan would be in the coming years. But there are also plenty of reasons to doubt that demographics are destiny.
Firstly, though American demographics might look better than Chinese ones, these are not the only factors that contribute to economic and military growth. Predicting the future is complex, and thus simple logic says there is no guarantee that China’s forecasters uniformly agree that it can’t close the gap between itself and the U.S. beyond the early 2030s.
Secondly, China may be narrowing the gap between itself and the U.S., but even in the Nikkei interview cited above, Beckley states that the gap remains “much larger than most people think.” Thus, a “narrowing” of the gap does not necessarily mean the gap is narrow, and does not necessarily mean Beijing judges it to be narrow enough.
Finally, the major criticism of demographics as destiny, and some realist international relations theory more widely, is that they don’t rely on evidence about Chinese strategy and intentions. Specific preferences and the values of specific leaders, ruling parties or constituencies are ignored in favor of the view that if China has the power to pursue its own national “interest” in taking Taiwan, it will. This dismisses, for instance, the idea that values make interests at a nation state level, in favor of the idea that interests are universal.
The Chinese National Health Authority’s announcement, then, isn’t necessarily a sign that war is inevitable. It depends who you ask. However, exactly how pessimistically China’s response to the demographic aging issue is interpreted by the U.S. foreign policy community does of course also affect the outcomes here. The theory does not have to be correct to have an impact, because the theory itself — if taken seriously — could change the U.S.’s behavior.