Shadow Government

The Coming Rivalry of Grumpy Old Men in East Asia

Tokyo and Beijing are certainly rivals, but given demographic trends, the rivalry will be among grumpy old men. 

Things are heating up in the East China Sea, as China continues to pressure Japan to abandon its claim that its sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands (called the Diaoyus by China) is nonnegotiable.

And after a year of dangerous intrusions and escalations, such as a Chinese frigate locking its radar on a Japanese vessel around the disputed islands, recently Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera accused China of sending its coast guard vessels into the Senkaku waters more than once a week: "I believe the intrusions by China in the territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands fall in the 'gray zone' [between] peacetime and an emergency situation."

The Sino-Japanese dispute is coming perilously close to conflict, as China finds in Shinzo Abe's government a wall of resistance to its recent pattern of aggression in its near seas. Abe has ambitious plans for reviving both the Japanese economy and its national security institutions to deal with dual threats from China and North Korea.

But there is some irony in Onodera's choice of words, "gray zone," to describe the state of affairs in the East China Sea: This great-power competition is unique in that the protagonists are getting old fast.

Never before have we seen a strategic rivalry in which the opposing sides are getting so old. While both countries are using the tools of traditional statecraft -- rising military budgets, high-stakes diplomacy, economic leverage -- to gain strategic advantage, they are rapidly losing the actual people to sustain this great game.

According to Chinese statistics, the 15-64 age-group cohort, the most productive age group, shrank by 3.45 million last year. Meanwhile, the China Research Center on Aging announced that there are now 202 million elderly in China -- the size of a large country.

According to my colleague Nicholas Eberstadt, the demographic guru, China's working-age population will shrink at a rate of 1 percent starting soon (if it hasn't already). By way of contrast, during the past three decades of massive economic growth, China's working-age population grew by 1.8 percent per year. The cohort of Chinese 65 and older will grow at an astonishing rate of 3.7 percent per year for the next two decades; the elderly as a percentage of the entire population will double, reaching 17.2 percent by 2030.

As for Japan, more than 23 percent of the population is already 65 or older. Over the next few decades the proportion of elderly in Japan could grow to one-third of the total population Already, the total population is shrinking and not being replaced through either birth or immigration. Over the next two decades, the working-age population will decline by about 17 percent from 81 million to 67 million.

Each country will lose military-age personnel needed to populate its increasingly sophisticated military capabilities or innovative industrial bases that build greater wealth and power. Accompanying the erosion in wealth and power will be a loss of political will to meet current leaders' ambitions.

The costs of the coming old-age tsunami are mind-boggling. China is relatively poor and has no national pension system and a limited patchwork of locally run systems. Japan is far wealthier but deeply indebted. Neither country has enough kids to support aging parents.

It would be easy enough to conclude that these demographic trends portend more inward-looking countries tending to their elderly. But there is nothing inevitable in international politics -- aging countries do not necessarily make more peaceful ones. And these are long-run trends; there can be much trouble before they're all old.

While it is amusing to consider that the walker may replace the missile as the weapon of choice for China and Japan, there are also far more dangerous possibilities. An aging Russia, for example, relies on its nuclear weapons (the most bang for the least manpower) for security. Both Japan and China are seriously interested in drones and robotics as systems of the future. Given the inclinations of youth in both countries, conflict may seem like a complicated video game. 

And like grumpy old men, the countries may become more impatient and disputatious. Where this plot leads is anyone's guess, but for guidance we are better off searching in the science-fiction section of the library.

Photo: /AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Given White House Constraints, Hagel Is Doing His Best

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel appears to be making the right choices for near-term defense priorities, given the budget constraints under which he must work. He recognizes that the Pentagon is ripe, indeed, long overdue, for institutional reform. He needs to cut back on support contractors and civil servants, finally bring the acquisition system into line, and reduce other elements of unnecessary overhead spending. His headquarters reductions are more symbolic than real in terms of budget savings, however; while these cuts are necessary, it is the bloat in the field that must be trimmed as well.

Hagel is also correct to identify not only space, cyber, and ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) -- all favorite tools of the current Administration -- as critical capabilities to be protected. He also rightly points to the need to fund major weapons systems that will ensure America's technological lead in the years to come.

Finally, Hagel identifies the urgent need for compensation reform. The commission that has been appointed to address this issue, of which I am a member, aims to provide the Defense Department and the Congress with innovative ideas that hopefully will help enable the secretary to achieve his objectives in this regard.

What is most unfortunate, however, is Hagel's recognition that he will be unable to fund the readiness and overseas presence necessary to signal to allies, partners, friends, and adversaries that the United States remains committed as ever to maintaining international stability. Perhaps allowing the reserves to lose some of their proficiency is a recognition of the inevitable, given the end of the major conflicts that enabled them to achieve that proficiency in the first place. But it is budget constraints that are going to hamper the overall readiness and size of the armed forces, and the White House appears ready to live with those constraints.

The administration has not been willing to treat defense as anything but just another discretionary account. Like every other such account, the administration contends, defense must "pay its share" of budget reductions. What that share actually is remains highly debatable, but in any event, the notion that defense is just another account flies in the face of both reality and the Constitution. Moreover, in the spirit of its indifference to defense, the White House has been virtually silent about the impact of the sequester on national security. It is Hagel who, like his predecessor Leon Panetta, has identified the sequester as a major threat to American security. Too bad the White House isn't paying attention; everyone else around the world certainly is doing so.