South Korea has long had a habit of thinking ahead and
investing heavily in the future. So its latest goal of driving up
its birth rate is a signal to other countries in the region to
consider the consequences of present fertility trends. Japan and
much of Europe should do the same; they fret about their own woeful
fertility but either take refuge in technical fixes to pension
challenges or do nothing. They decline to penalize those who expect
a pension but do not contribute to the workforce of the future.
For now, South Korea's
population is still much younger than Japan's, which started its
demographic transition a decade earlier. But unless its procreation
campaign succeeds, it will be in the same position as Japan, or
worse, by 2035. Japan's population is already in decline.
Whether Korea can
achieve its goal, however, is quite another matter. Korean sense of
racial identity may be a spur to parenthood, but it has been of
scant influence in an equally ethnocentric Japan. Unusually low
fertility rates now seem the reality in a neo-Confucian society that
is supposed to stress family values. The fertility of East Asian
urban residents is now below Europe's lowest levels.
The outcome for
Northeast Asia as a whole will have a major impact on the balance of
power within the region and vis-à-vis South Asia and Southeast Asia
within two generations. While education, technology, political
cohesion and resources are also crucial, demographics play a major
role in power equations.
Southeast Asia is, as it
always was, quite different from Northeast Asia. This can be partly
traced to the greater customary equality of the sexes in matters of
inheritance, economic opportunity and marriage rights, which
pre-dated the arrival of Islam, Christianity and Confucius and still
survives to some degree from Myanmar to Bali. The pro-male sex
imbalances found in China are absent in Southeast Asia.
In the short term, too,
demographics will play a huge part in determining relative rates of
economic growth. That spells trouble for all of Northeast Asia and
Singapore, where the percentage of working-age people is now close
to its peak - the 19-and-under cohorts are getting smaller, but the
number of over-60s is still modest.
Even in Thailand,
already only 30 percent of the population is now under 20 years of
age compared with 39 percent in Vietnam, where the sharp decline in
fertility is quite recent. Thailand is a lot better off than China,
Taiwan and Korea, all around 27 percent but far short of Indonesia's
39 percent, Malaysia's 42 percent and India's 43 percent. Youth is
scarcest in Hong Kong - a mere 21 percent of the population is under
20 years old.
If today's outlook is
grim for societies long used to imagining themselves as youthful,
tomorrow's is worse. Even in Thailand, the fertility rate (births
per woman of child-bearing age) is under the replacement level. As
for Northeast Asia, Hong Kong is at the bottom of the table, with a
rate of just 0.9, but the rest of the region and Singapore are
little better. Japan's low fertility has long been known, but
Korea's at 1.2 is now even lower, slightly worse than Taiwan's. All
their rates are now lower than Russia's.
China's fertility is
slightly higher, but its future situation is almost certainly worse
than the raw number - 1.7 - suggests, due to the 15 percent excess
of boys over girls in the youngest groups and to the likelihood that
any easing of the one-child policy will be offset by urbanization.
Fertility rates in major Chinese cities are exceptionally low - 0.8
Could it be that after
centuries of being oppressed, women in these newly industrialized
Confucian societies have finally acquired economic independence and
are rebelling against tradition? It may not be mere coincidence that
Japan and Korea, countries where the subservient role of women has
long been most apparent, now have by far the lowest fertility rates,
the city-states excluded. In East Asia, educated women in Singapore
are showing a marked reluctance to marry. The same applies in Hong
Kong, which imports brides from the mainland, and Taiwan, which
imports them from Vietnam and elsewhere.
Looking ahead, Korea's
problem might be temporarily relieved by reunification with the
North, where despite food shortages, fertility is around 2. But
otherwise, societies face either radical decline or radical change
in birth rates. Even if immigration were socially acceptable in
Japan and Korea, it would have to be on a massive scale - assuming
that the goal is eventual population stability, Japan would need
half a million immigrants a year to make up for its birth shortfall.
are notoriously unreliable. But the issue for East Asia now is
whether it responds to some alarming facts by raising its fertility
rate just as it previously responded to excessive population growth
with declines that now look to have been too dramatic. Those
declines helped spawn economic miracles, but the price of shifting
from one extreme to the other has yet to be paid.