Demography, the soft-underbelly of geopolitics


Paying a visit to my phlegmatic Punjabi physician in New Delhi in the early 1960s, I found him uncharacteristically upset. Amniocentesis had come to India and some of his patients were asking him to abort fetuses if they were female. Out of moral scruple, he was refusing, losing patients – and deeply concerned. It was a revelation of the growing complexity of medical progress but a warning of things to come as science posed more and more difficult moral decisions.

A half century later my physician-friend’s warnings about “playing God” have had their repercussions. In China, where the Communist regime imposed a one-child mandate to limit its huge and seemingly intractable population, traditional female infanticide has multiplied – or so always unreliable government statistics indicate. The average number of children a woman has during her childbearing years is estimated at around 1.6, and rapidly declining. A ­replacement rate to keep its population stable is 2.1. One effect is to further skew a sex ratio with millions of young men unable to find partners. Ten-cent psychology tell us a society with a large “excess” of males – China has 45-60-million – would be prone to aggressive policies, including those favoring foreign adventure.

India’s decades of widespread voluntary [except for a brief period when Indira Gandhi’s 1975-76 “emergency” threatened mandatory sterilization] family planning propaganda has impacted the fertility rate. But because of continuing growth, India will shortly surpass China’s 1.35 billion to become the world’s largest population. Some speculate this may produce a tortoise and hare relationship between the two large economies. For China is already greying with estimates almost 14% of its population is already over 60. It could suffer labor shortages for low-wage industries leading its export-led economy. India, on the other hand, has a continuing fertility rate of 2.5 births per couple – although very skewed among its dozens of racial, ethnic and language groups.

With all the noise about the Arab Spring’s promised political and economic reforms in the huge swath of 22 countries across North Africa and the Middle East, perhaps the most important determinant behind the explosion is the population bulge. UN estimates indicate total population of the Arab countries since 1970 has climbed from 128 million to 359 million with 598 million expected by 2050 — two-thirds more people than in 2010. Furthermore, children under age 15 account for a third of the population and young persons aged 15 to 24 years account for another fifth, or a majority of the population, 54 per cent, is now under the age of 25, all seeking jobs.

But, again, the densities and growth is skewed within the area – with fertility rates dropping for the most part but with the huge backlogs pushing total figures. There is growing – if still contested – evidence, for example, fertility rates and therefore population growth has dropped dramatically among Israeli Arabs and in the West Bank and Gaza. If that were to be the case, the whole Israeli-Arab feud takes a new turn as Arab population growth against lower Israeli birthrates has been one of the major calculations in the continuing struggle.

Fundamental is the juxtaposition across the Mediterranean of the growing Arab [and mostly Muslim] population of North Africa and the Mideast against a southern Europe, geared until recently as a main source of immigration for the Western Hemisphere and northern Europe. Thus an Italy now with the lowest birth rate in Europe along with its neighbors in the European Union faces the increasing dilemma of a declining population, importing workers from the Arab-Muslim world and difficulties of their absorption in societies historically unaccustomed to it.

Nothing less than a democratic catastrophe has hit Japan, a country notoriously inhospitable to immigrants. In 2011, Japan’s population dropped for a fifth consecutive year, falling by 204,000 people to 126.24 million, and could drop to 95 million by 2050. With longest life expectancy of any major country, almost a quarter of the population is over 65, and by 2050 it’s estimated almost 40 percent of the population will be 65 and over. With a large number of young Japanese refusing marriage and children, there is a growing crisis over maintaining its growing social security system and staffing its export-led industrial plant. Traditional efforts at governmental incentives to turn this tide have so far proved inadequate.

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