Could it be, however, that the direction of the 2008 decision reflected Beijing's ultimate vision of China as an intensely educated, more economically independent, and more respected great power? Slowed population growth, followed by a period of population decline, could-over the long term-reduce the country's exposure to, and impact on, international grain and petroleum markets that have become increasingly volatile. And a slowly growing (or declining), better-educated Chinese population could make it advantageous for Beijing to enter into a future carbon emissions trading regime.
It is not hard to imagine that Beijing would prefer to minimize tensions with weaker states, particularly regional neighbors, which it hopes someday to coax away from security relationships with the United States and its Western allies. However, the sheer size of China's population and its growing food and energy needs makes balancing its economic security against relations with smaller states extraordinarily difficult. For example, Beijing's efforts to dam the Mekong and to harness the river's power are already straining relations with governments further downstream, in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. And the diplomatic pitfalls of China's overseas oil drilling and its African agricultural ventures have been nearly as difficult to manage.
The most interesting critique of the 2008 decision has been leveled by demographer Yong Cai and colleagues who argue that the OCP hardly matters at all. According to them, even if the policy were completely lifted tomorrow, China's current total fertility rate-which recent surveys indicate is between 1.5 and 1.6 children per woman-is unlikely to rise substantially. A recent survey among young couples in China finds that their ultimate childbearing goals average to about 1.6 children per family. Even in rural areas, where most couples can have at least two children without penalties, desired family size appears to be well below the 2.1 children per woman average needed for generational replacement.