Demographics are destiny, and the world is entering into a period of great demographic upheaval. Birth rates are collapsing within both the West and Asia; there are 23 countries whose populations are expected to halve by 2100. This will have a profound impact on the balance of power throughout the world in general, and for Australia’s interests, the Indo-Pacific. For Canberra, being aware of the social drivers of these trends, and the effects on the capabilities of other states, will increasingly become a key foreign policy concern.
Australia is in the advantageous position of being able to augment its own population – and therefore its capabilities – through a strong immigration program. However, regardless of the size of its intake, Australia will remain a middle power in need of allies and friends. Allies and friends that lack the asset of immigration – like Japan and South Korea – face a considerable waning of their own capabilities, which will significantly affect Australia’s strategic options. What can be achieved, or protected, in unison will become more limited.
Social trends, and especially other countries’ social policies, aren’t traditionally seen as being central to foreign policy. Yet in recent centuries countries have not faced a phenomenon quite like a natural decline in population. There have been famines, wars, and brutal government policies from authoritarian regimes, but the idea of population decline by choice is different. It creates a whole new set of calculations about what states can rely on from their base of domestic human capital.
Conventional assessments of declining birth rates cite urbanization, female workforce participation, the abandonment of traditional religions, economic insecurity, and recently climate anxiety as drivers of these trends. While these are all undoubtedly significant factors, there is an emerging issue that is proving just as influential, but more difficult to address: women’s realization that they do not have to tolerate men’s abusive attitudes and behaviors toward them.
Nowhere has this issue become more pronounced than in South Korea, the country currently with the lowest birth rate. Social trends like the 4B movement have emerged as a response to the persistent poor treatment of women and are built around actively avoiding men altogether. The 4Bs stand for biyeonae (no dating), bisekseu (no sex), bihon (no marriage), and bichulsan (no children). The movement recognizes that social structures that were previously unavoidable for women, or what women were expected to endure, no longer need to be tolerated. Women can simply opt out.
The structural response to this phenomenon couldn’t have been more counterproductive. South Korea President Yoon Suk-yeol explicitly blamed the country’s low birth rate on feminism during his election campaign, and has been seeking to undermine the Gender Equality Ministry since taking office. Yet in a country where almost three-quarters of women enroll in higher education – significantly outpacing men – trying to force women back into the proverbial kitchen will only strengthen movements like 4B.
While other countries may not have overt and organized movements like 4B, the sentiment that drives this movement is clearly present throughout the West and much of Asia. Women who may want children are now educated and independent enough to weigh their desires against the costs. And the costs of involvement with men – among other factors – are often proving too great.
Yet instead of a global understanding that men’s attitudes and behaviors toward women need to improve, we are currently experiencing an extraordinary and often intense backlash against female advancement. This backlash is driving the reemergence of populist and authoritarian politics that are destabilizing countries, and which in turn may lead to new modes of operation by states, and potentially destabilizing balances of power in international relations through these ideological shifts combining with declining populations.
This is why the social trends of other countries are of great concern to Australia’s foreign policy. A middle power like Australia is instinctively sensitive to power dynamics. An awareness of how power shifts, not just when and where, is central to Canberra’s approach to statecraft. What is becoming clear is that population decline is a stark illustration of the intimate links between personal relations and international relations. How our personal relations spiral up into larger phenomena, and how we treat each other, is the foundation on which a state’s capabilities are built.
Of course, the social policies of its friends are not something Canberra would directly comment on. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is very unlikely to get on the phone to Yoon and ask him to focus on improving Korean men instead of admonishing Korean women. However, there is the ability for Australia to set an example with its social expectations of men for others to witness. Positive results may breed imitation.
States still instinctively believe that their capabilities are tied to the power of their men. But as we enter into an era of population decline, what may become clearer is that the interests of women are not just aligned with the interests of the state, but are the primary drivers of each state’s capabilities. The first states to comprehend this will place themselves in a far more advantageous position.