East Asia has steadily become a region ripe for large-scale conflict not seen since World War Two. Various nations, such as South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam, could all be in open war soon against different geopolitical rivals such as South Korea and China, respectively.
Preparedness for war has begun in these countries, with much of East Asia solidifying defense pacts with the United States. Nevertheless, challenges have arisen in place of military preparation, such as the changing demographics in the region.
Several ongoing conflicts in East Asia have the possibility of brewing into armed conflicts in the future. Under Xi Jinping, China looks poised to forcibly unify their nation with Taiwan, which could become a regional and unthinkable world war if the situation spirals out of control.
On the Korean Peninsula, tensions have arisen as North Korea continues its unilateral and internationally condemned ballistic missile tests. Ramping up threats towards South Korea and reportedly signing up hundreds of thousands of recruits, the situation in the peninsula remains precarious.
The United States solidified its mutual defense pact with South Korea, including an even more significant nuclear presence if the North used one first. Seoul has also grown its relations with Tokyo as both nations see Pyongyang as a security threat.
In the South China Sea, the People’s Republic of China has aggressively flexed its muscles against countries such as Vietnam and The Philippines. Vietnam has had prior conflicts with China, which has crept into its own Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), and the Philippines solidified a deal for America to bolster its expeditionary force in Southeast Asia.
Likewise, Japan and Australia see a rising military threat from China, and both nations have made strides towards remilitarization. Australia signed the highly coveted military pact of AUKUS.
Demographic Declines in East Asia
Historically, in the early 19th and 20th centuries, countries in Asia went through a Malthusian, also known as rapid population growth, that the ruling governments could not adapt to. Until the 20th century, China and India enacted policies to cull population growth. Whereas China was able to mitigate population growth, India was not as successful.
Today, China is slowly regretting its population policies. Though not saying it openly due to the authoritarian state, Beijing is facing one of the world’s biggest demographic collapses.
Low birth rates in China are putting the nation of currently over a billion people at a potential estimated 800 million by the end of the century. With an ever-aging population that hasn’t retired, much of the younger generation now lacks economic and labor opportunities—pushing them to become global ex-pats.
Japan and South Korea face even worse demographic situations than their geopolitical rival China. This past January, Japan’s Prime Minister Kishida stated it was “now or never” to solve the country’s birth rate crisis. Already an again nation, birth rates fell below 800,000 for the first time in Japan’s history, putting Tokyo at a crossroads in handling the situation in the future.
Despite being an economic and technological powerhouse, South Korea continuously faces the world’s lowest birth rate. According to Statistics Korea, the 2022 birth rate in the country was 0.78, with the capital of Seoul at 0.59. Due to the hardline work culture, families are drained from stress, and these factors could lead to a demographic collapse in the future.
The Philippines is also going through a significant demographic decline. Birth rates are currently at 1.9, a sharp decrease from 2.7 in 2017.
How Demographics Change Contingency Plans
The changing demographics in East Asia will play a decisive role in future conflicts. Whereas Asian nations have historically had high casualties in past wars, the era of ever-growing technological warfare advancements and labor sustainment will be crucial.
An important lesson from the current Russian-Ukrainian War is the needless amount of non-disabled Russian men that have been killed and wounded in the war thus far. Russia, which is suffering from an ongoing demographic decline since the collapse of the Soviet Union, now has an exacerbated crisis thanks to the Kremlin’s imperial ambitions. Close to one million men have fled the country due to the partial mobilization, and the 200,000-plus casualties will affect an already declining birth rate for generations to come.
Lessons Learned from Russia
Countries such as China, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, and North Korea will take lessons from Russia’s problem in Ukraine, which has worsened Moscow’s labor shortage and demographics. Both are bolstering their militaries. China, South Korea, and Japan will have to calculate contingencies on potential decapitation strikes rather than being bogged down in prolonged wars with hundreds of thousands of casualties akin to Russia.
For example, a potential Chinese naval assault into Taiwan would require the largest amphibious landing in history, and a protracted war that could see the US and Japan militarily would cost China hundreds of thousands of casualties. In lieu of this, the Communist Party could attempt to call up a mobilization if their reserves are depleted, and that would force another mass exodus on top of their demographics collapse akin to Russia currently.
Despite South Korea’s rapid demographic decline, its defense treaty with the United States and military cooperation with Japan is a powerful shield against North Korean provocations. Their ever-growing defense industry has led to top-notch military technology exported worldwide. Using their technological and military capabilities to mend relations would be instrumental if the Korean War were to reignite.
The United States has also emphasized making East Asia its priority for the national security of the nation and our allies, as China poses the most significant risk in the Pacific. Having the world’s most powerful military and fastest force projection in the region will substantially boost Asian allies for reinforcements to make up for shortfalls in manpower.
Nevertheless, East Asian nations must address and remedy their demographics and labor situations. Akin to Russia, who found out the hard way in Ukraine, it is impossible to fight a prolonged conflict without calculating your country’s demographic position and the effects on various sectors it will have on your economy and workforce in a time of war.