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[ 48 ] asia policy Critical Cross-Cutting Issues Facing Northeast Asia: Regional Demographic Trends and Prospects Nicholas Eberstadt This essay outlines some of the implications of demographic trends in the Northeast Asia region over the coming generation. These few pages will make no attempt to drum up support for the proposition that “demography is destiny”—that famous aphorism often attributed to 19th century French social scientist Auguste Comte. For strategic thinkers and other students of human agency surveying an international chessboard over a time horizon measured in decades rather than eons, Comte’s dictum promises far too much and delivers too little. It offers instead what may be regarded as a more modest but also more defensible argument: namely, that demography changes the realm of the possible. Demographic trends are doing just that before our very eyes today in Northeast Asia, methodically and inexorably. Indeed, over the coming generation it is entirely likely that demographic trends are going to change the realm of the possible in the Asia-Pacific in unprecedented and absolutely revolutionary ways. The reason for making such a confident pronouncement about so very bold an assertion has to do with the inherent reliability of relatively long-term demographic projections. By their very nature, demographic projections can be made with rather more confidence than many other sorts of long term projections from the social sciences. Supposing that the scope for long-range projections should be a quartercentury , a look backward a quarter-centry, to 1981, gives some sense of the recent performance of various varieties of long-range prognostication. It is now clear that social scientists and other systematic surveyors of the Northeast Asian scene did not generally anticipate some of the most momentous events that were to unfold in the region over the past generation. In 1981, for example, the USSR was a major player in Northeast Asia— yet at that time practically no political scientists or regional specialists were contemplating the possibility of a wholesale Soviet collapse. With respect to economics, Dwight Perkins makes the point in this roundtable that longerterm projections may actually be superior to very short-term projections because the relative error factor (from shocks and unpredictable events) will Nicholas Eberstadt holds the Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. and serves as a Senior Adviser to NBR. He can be reached at . [ 49 ] roundtable • pursuing security in a dynamic northeast asia be smaller. His own predictive record on the Chinese economy is very good. A look at the profession as a whole, however, reveals that some fairly major developments in Northeast Asia came as an almost total surprise. Suffice to say that few economists back in 1981 were writing about the coming decade of stagnation in what was then Asia’s largest economy: Japan. Among all the social sciences, it is quite possibly demography that enjoys the greatest intrinsic disciplinary advantage in attempting to peer into the world a generation hence. Why should this be so? Quite simply, this is because the process of population change is governed by a powerful and biological regularity—and its annual tempo, in comparison to many other sorts of change in our modern era, is rather gradual and slow. Furthermore, when both fertility and mortality levels are quite low, as is the case throughout Northeast Asia today, the plain fact of the matter is that the overwhelming majority of the people inhabiting some region a generation from now will be people who are already there today—and the overwhelming majority of people here today will be alive in the region a generation from now. Barring only catastrophe of truly Biblical proportion, in other words, we already have a fairly good reading on Northeast Asia’s population profiles out to the year 2030. Barring only utter catastrophe, the very most important “driving factor” altering the region’s population profiles over the coming generation will be patterns of childbearing; that is to say, birth rates or fertility levels. This is not a normative judgment but a statement of arithmetic. In purely quantitative terms, the impact of fertility trends on the impending changes in Northeast Asia’s population structures looks to be...


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