Below is a complimentary Demography Unplugged research note written by Hedgeye Demography analyst Neil Howe. Click here to learn more and subscribe.

Will Demographic Decline Push China to War?  - AdobeStock 250751006

In an op-ed, columnist George Will argues that China’s baby bust is making the country “ever more dangerous.” A country in decline, he says, is more inclined to be aggressive. (The Washington Post)

NH: George Will is alluding to what political scientists call “the power transition theory.”

I have previously discussed how policy analysts are using "power transition" to explain how perceptions of longer-term adversity could be leading both China and Russia into taking larger near-term risks. (See “Is Demographic Decline Fueling Russia's Aggression?” and “Births in China Continue to Fall.”) 

Power transition theory argues that countries entering long-term relative decline have two significant incentives to pursue their near-term geopolitical goals more aggressively. First, such countries may perceive that they are facing a "closing window of opportunity" and need to strike sooner rather than later.

Second, geopolitical success may be rewarded by a more favorable domestic outlook. And in turn, that may work to reverse the long-term negative dynamics--for example, reverse demographic decline by raising domestic morale and optimism about the future.

Over the last decade, the CCP has become increasingly concerned about China's fertility decline. The UN now predicts China will enter negative population growth this year–in 2022. The government has responded by implementing ever-more ambitious pronatalist policies--without however any success thus far. (See "When Will China's Population Growth Go Negative?")

Will's op-ed argues that China's demographic anxieties will push it to invade Taiwan. And, for that reason, he argues that the US needs to respond quickly by bolstering the island's defenses. 

Of course, this may be a catch-22 response. Let's say the US embarks on a multi-year effort to turn Taiwan into a "porcupine" (a territory impervious to takeover through invasion).

And let's say the US and its allies accelerate their multi-year effort to shore up the first and second island chains in the western Pacific. Such efforts could persuade China to make a "firm move" even sooner. From its perspective, the window of opportunity would be closing even faster than it was before.

Either way, China's increasingly belligerent diplomatic and regional military posture is pushing the US to take a tougher stance against possible threats.

In May, Biden offered his most forceful assertion yet: The US would militarily defend Taiwan if China attacked. This is a significant change in rhetoric from past presidents who took a more ambiguous approach. But the American public supports this attitude.

In 2021, for the first time, more than half of Americans favored US military intervention if Taiwan were invaded. 

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Neil Howe is a renowned authority on generations and social change in America. An acclaimed bestselling author and speaker, he is the nation's leading thinker on today's generations—who they are, what motivates them, and how they will shape America's future.

A historian, economist, and demographer, Howe is also a recognized authority on global aging, long-term fiscal policy, and migration. He is a senior associate to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C., where he helps direct the CSIS Global Aging Initiative.

Howe has written over a dozen books on generations, demographic change, and fiscal policy, many of them with William Strauss. Howe and Strauss' first book, Generations is a history of America told as a sequence of generational biographies. Vice President Al Gore called it "the most stimulating book on American history that I have ever read" and sent a copy to every member of Congress. Newt Gingrich called it "an intellectual tour de force." Of their book, The Fourth Turning, The Boston Globe wrote, "If Howe and Strauss are right, they will take their place among the great American prophets."

Howe and Strauss originally coined the term "Millennial Generation" in 1991, and wrote the pioneering book on this generation, Millennials Rising. His work has been featured frequently in the media, including USA Today, CNN, the New York Times, and CBS' 60 Minutes.

Previously, with Peter G. Peterson, Howe co-authored On Borrowed Time, a pioneering call for budgetary reform and The Graying of the Great Powers with Richard Jackson.

Howe received his B.A. at U.C. Berkeley and later earned graduate degrees in economics and history from Yale University.