Demographic Transitions and Its Geopolitical Impact

Family in motorcycle
Image credit: Saad Akhtar, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Population is a key element of a state. Demographic patterns are influenced by political actions and vice versa. Population is the key driver of socioeconomic and technological growth, military policy, and state legitimacy. There is a close and direct relationship between the geopolitical situation of a state and the size, type, and structure of its population. These shifts can affect the global balance of power.

However, in geopolitics and international relations, the field of demography is underrepresented. Throughout history, population changes caused by natural growth, infectious diseases, and migration have affected the rise and fall of empires, conquests, and revolutions. The world today is also undergoing a major demographic change, which has several political consequences. It is crucial to analyze these transitions, which influence the world’s current and future power dynamics. There are several indicators of demographic changes with their geopolitical implications. Some of the major indicators are discussed below. 

Overall Population

The world population grew from 1 billion in 1800 to 7.7 billion today. 13 countries in the world are home to more than 100 million people: China (1.415 billion), India (1.354 billion), United States (326.8m), Indonesia (266.8m), Brazil (210.9m), Pakistan (200.8m), Nigeria (195.9m), Bangladesh (166.4m), Russia (144m), Mexico (130.8m), Japan (127.2m), Ethiopia (107.5m), Philippines (106.5m). Together these 13 countries are the home of 4.75 billion people and 62% of the world population. Since population is the key resource for all basic industries and military power, a large population asserts the position of the state in the international arena. Because of their larger populations, countries like China and India hold political influence. A country’s geopolitical position is thus determined by its population size, whether it is a regional power, a great power, or a superpower.

One important fact to notice is that only 1.7 billion people live in the richer countries out of a total population of 7 billion. The world’s leading countries are increasingly becoming a demographic minority.

Age Structure

Great powers today are experiencing a significant reduction in birth rates and a substantial rise in life expectancy. The progressive transition from a younger to an older population age structure is referred to as “population aging.” The economies of established great powers – Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China, Japan, and the United States could slow as a result of the shrinking labour pools and increased welfare spending. By 2050, the population in countries like Russia and Japan will be drastically reduced. Even China, the world’s most populous nation, would most likely lose nearly 20% of its working-age population. 

As developed economies struggle to keep up with the aging population, funds diverted from military to social spending are likely to change national security priorities. Budgets for technology and acquisition will shrink, while personnel costs and pension obligations will consume a greater share of defence spending. 

Ninety percent of the world’s youth live in developing countries today. They have huge potential and are eager to learn and grow. However, if the same youth has trouble finding work and integrating into society, they become violent. This is frequent in countries where the government is weak and inefficient, for example in countries of Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. However, due to the youth bulge, some South and Southeast Asian countries are experiencing economic growth. 

Whereas, the population in countries of the Middle East will continue to rise and remain comparatively youthful and as a result, political turmoil and outmigration are likely to persist. Nonetheless, it is estimated that the youth bulge will be highest in countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Guatemala, Iraq, Ethiopia, Angola, Chad, and Yemen, with population growth rates exceeding 2% annually and populations doubling every 30–35 years in these nations.

Religion and Ethnicity

With the majority of conflicts and wars taking place around the world as secession movements, rivalry for state resources, rights of minorities and indigenous peoples, cultural movements, community-based battles, and religious fundamentalism, this aspect becomes increasingly important in understanding current and future geopolitical dynamics. Changing structures of various races, religions, and cultures in process and will shape the nature of future conflicts and wars. 

Between 2015 and 2060, the number of Muslims, the world’s largest religious group with the youngest population and highest fertility, is expected to increase by 70%, while Christianity, the current dominant religion, is expected to decline. While Hindus, Jews, and folk religion adherents are projected to increase in absolute numbers in the coming decades, none of these communities will be able to catch up with global population growth. Other religions, such as Buddhists, Baha’is, Jains, Sikhs, Taoists, and many smaller faiths, are also projected to decline in the same period.

Urbanization

The global urbanization rate has increased dramatically since the twentieth century. Since 1950, developing countries have increasingly urbanized. Both Africa and Asia also gradually followed, beginning at low levels of 15% in 1950 and climbing to around 40% in 2010. However, despite the fact that income and urbanization are closely connected across countries, the world is becoming increasingly urbanized at a constant level of income.

Migration

Migration has a long history of being a significant geopolitical force as well as a threat to the host country’s territorial integrity. One of the most important aspects of population change is migration. In recent years, there have been some changes in terms of origin and destination, as well as the types of migration. The countries which used to be origin are now hosts and vice versa. Today, a large proportion of international migrants are born in middle-income countries such as India and Mexico and live in high-income countries such as the United States. 

The host countries representing the global North are worried about the rising influx of immigrants. This can be seen in Europe’s reluctance to welcome refugees, as well as the rise in negative public views toward immigrants, both of which are impacting international relations.

Future Implications

The whole world is, and in the future will undergo demographic transition with no exemptions. Demographic shifts caused by the uneven transitions have exacerbated and will continue up through 2050. Political consequences will emerge from increasing imbalances between nation-states, great powers, or regions. A new world order might, for example, see a declining Russia and a growing Indonesia, or a declining Europe and a rising Asia as a new reality. There would be more disparities in age groups, rural-urban groups, and ethnic or religious groups. In order to deal with the myriad issues that these developments will bring, states will be forced to adopt a demographic policy. The most foreseen future development is demographic change, but it is also the least studied. As a result, it is important not to separate demography from politics.