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Dynamics of population and our regional order

By Peter Curson - posted Wednesday, 9 May 2007


There is little doubt that the dynamics of population have an important bearing on affairs in our region, affecting the regional configuration of power and international relations. Population would seem to matter - in particular its links to poverty, the environment, power and security, all of which are influenced by population growth and decline, population composition, ethnic diasporas and internal migration.

For much of the second half of last century Australia and the developed world were consumed by the fear of unbridled and unrelenting population growth eating into world resources. Now there is talk of population stagnation and decline in many developed countries, and ageing and a slowing of growth in many others.

In essence, Australia’s region represents a demographic microcosm of the world. Incipient population decline in Japan; slow growth, low fertility and mortality in Australia and New Zealand; moderate growth in countries like India, Indonesia, Vietnam and Malaysia; and rapid growth in the Philippines, Cambodia, Laos, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Papua-New Guinea.

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Arguably these demographic scenarios will come to dominate the next 25 years and have important implications for regional security, perhaps even radically transforming the regional political and economic order.

An important question is: will all countries in our region ultimately come to share the demographic characteristics of Australia - later age at marriage, fewer children, ageing populations, longer lives, more single family and lone person households?

Many believe that this will happen throughout our region over the next 25-50 years. China and Taiwan have already progressed along this route. Much of this change is encapsulated in what is known as the “demographic transition” - the movement from a regime of high fertility and mortality characteristic of traditional societies, to low birth and death rates, seen in developed countries.

Australia, Japan, Taiwan and Singapore are emerging from the final stages of this process into uncharted demographic territory, while most of our region is only part way through. Some of our neighbours, like Cambodia, Laos, Bangladesh and the Philippines have only just begun this transition.

Some now argue that the forces associated with progress along this transition are linked to changes in the vulnerability of states to instability and conflict. In particular they argue that countries with a “youth bulge” (those aged 15-29) and high levels of internal migration and urbanisation, as well as shifts in ethnic composition, are more likely to be subject to insecurity and conflict.

In Australia and New Zealand young adults, aged 15-29, comprise about 25 per cent of all adults. In countries like Bangladesh, Laos, Cambodia, the Philippines and Papua-New Guinea, the figure is between 45 and 49 per cent.

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While the jury is still out on the full implications of this, in the context of large scale rural-urban movements and high urban unemployment, there certainly would appear to be evidence of a link to instability and conflict. Equally important are ethnic and religious differences within societies to our north.

In India for example, the Muslim population will reach about 330 million by 2050 - 19 per cent of India’s total population. Despite many years of sustained economic growth, many Muslims are still marginalised and discriminated against in the areas of education, employment and housing. Small wonder many are pushed into radicalism. Muslims in India have also become the whipping boy of many extremist nationalist groups in recent years.

In the next 25 years there will be substantial changes in our region’s demography and while the population will grow at a slower rate it will still add about 37 million people every year, distinctly lower than the 52 million a year in the late 1980s. This increase will bring the region’s population to about 4.5 billion by 2025, and almost all this increase will come from the super giants of India, China, and the runners-up -Pakistan, Indonesia and the Philippines. Most of this growth will also come from the cities.

Australia and New Zealand’s proportion of this huge demographic pie will increase slightly but will still barely exceed 0.5 per cent.

Finally, infectious disease adds another dimension to the population-security nexus. The recent SARS epidemic, the ongoing Bird Flu outbreak and the building HIV-AIDS pandemic have propelled infectious disease to a new level of concern for security analysts.

The building HIV-AIDS epidemic in India and China is of particular concern. With a few years there may well be 25 million people infected with HIV-AIDS in India and if things continue as they are, China could have 25 million by 2025. Such developments could dramatically alter the balance of power in our region.

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About the Author

Peter Curson is Emeritus Professor of Population and Health in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Macquarie University.

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