How the world will look at mid-century

by Yoichi Funabashi

The demand for predicting the future seems to grow rapidly in periods of crisis. Currently, long-term forecasts are emerging from every quarter. I would like to incorporate some of these projections while venturing my own for what the world would look like in 2050 — primarily from the viewpoint of power.

Population and GDP trends will bear the most direct influence on national power. Based on the 2017 Revision of the U.N. World Population Prospects, India, China, Nigeria, the United States, Indonesia, Pakistan and Brazil appear set to become the world’s “G7” in terms of population by 2050.

Meanwhile, according to The Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2015 long-term macroeconomic forecast, the world’s major economic powers of 2050 will be China, the U.S., India, Indonesia, Japan, Germany and Brazil, in that order.

By then China, the U.S., and India will have emerged as the world’s three big powers — although the U.S. will maintain its strategic and military ascendance over China and India. In the eyes of the world, however, the U.S. may well have transformed from a “predictable stabilizer” to an “uncertain variable,” or even a “disruptive force.” The greatest threats to American power will be internal.

The same will be true of China. In the 2030s, the Chinese government will likely reorient the course of Xi Jinping’s policies to consolidate external hegemony and internal autocracy. Debt and population decline will drag the feet of China’s economic growth, and the government may prove unable to halt the overseas flight of Chinese elites.

By then, more states may have opted for and concentrated within the American system of alliances. The U.S. and India may forge a quasi-alliance in order to counter China, although Trump now seems to oblige India to distance itself from the U.S.

The populations of overseas Indians and Chinese will grow dramatically. The Malacca and Hormuz Straits will pose dilemmas for China and India respectively. Given the vulnerability of their energy supply and increased international business presence, both China and India will strengthen their offensive and hegemonic stances toward the rest of the world. Maritime tensions in the Indian and Pacific oceans will supplant land-based conflict in the Himalayan region as the focal point of Sino-Indian relations.

All three of the 2050 global powers will be nuclear weapons states. By then, however, I suspect that the utility and distinction associated with being a nuclear power will have diminished, as the continued diffusion of nuclear weapons will undermine their ability to operate as a credible form of deterrence. Moreover, if the trend toward prohibiting the use of nuclear weapons strengthens over time, nuclear weapons will lose their deterrent force as they become all the more unusable. Artificial intelligence may also chip away at the deterrent force associated with nuclear weapons by making their location and movement transparent.

Although current trends may continue into the future, it is equally possible that at some point the world will confront an unexpected and hugely disruptive “black swan event.” Human longevity may increase to the point that it ruins fiscal frameworks of governments. Climate change may create millions of climate- disaster refugees. Artificial intelligence may upend the human work force. Genomes may change the very composition of the human body. The difference between true and fake information may become even harder to discern, rendering courts and the media dysfunctional.

Of these various scenarios, the most likely sources of abrupt and unanticipated change are climate change and the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

By 2050, most of the Arctic ice will have melted. When this happens, the Arctic Ocean will become one of the world’s principal sea routes. The Arctic is also a treasure trove of oil, gas and rare mineral reserves. A struggle for regional hegemony will unfold among the countries with Arctic coastal waters — Russia, Canada, the U.S., Norway, Denmark, Finland, Iceland — and China, which does not border the Arctic but nevertheless aspires to become an “Arctic power” (in the words of Chinese President Xi Jinping) by incorporating the North Pole into its “One Belt, One Road” development strategy.

Russia and Canada will become the largest grain-producing countries in the world. According to some estimates, the population of the Arctic region, which currently stands at 4 million, will increase to 400 million by the end of the century.

The ice of the Tibetan Plateau will also melt, threatening the ecosystem at the headwaters of some of Asia’s largest rivers. By 2035, half of the world’s population will face water shortages due to draught and other factors, and this shortage will be especially acute in China. The Chinese government may launch sweeping “geo-engineering” initiatives to divert the flow of rivers or lower the temperature across Chinese territories through the use of stratospheric sulfate aerosols.

Meanwhile, as the Fourth Industrial Revolution continues to unfold, humans, society, and states will be unable to keep up with the speed of changes to perception, psychology and governance. It is time to move beyond the Silicon Valley “dog year” ideology, an “accelerationism” approach that celebrates saving time and denies the need for regulation.

The world will require “resilient states” that can adapt to the accelerating speed of the changes and diminish the excesses associated with the chaos unleashed by geopolitics, climate change and the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

The compulsion to decide things at a single glance must be resisted, and the ability to reflexively take a second glance before making decisions should be honed. This — together with wisdom and prudent governance — will be essential.

The ability to appreciate diversity and listen with tolerance to different positions and second opinions will also be critical. Connectivity, information and intelligence will be the keys to national power. Amid a cascade of disruptive changes, soft power will accrue to the states that prove able to sustain a moderate form of politics and an open, diverse society.

Yoichi Funabashi is chairman of the Asia Pacific Initiative and a former editor-in-chief of the Asahi Shimbun. This is a translation of his column in the monthly Bungei Shunju.