Why India overtakes China as the most populous country is more than symbolic

The day India overtakes China as the world’s most populous nation, the change for both countries will be psychological and symbolic.

China will still be the biggest economic power, the one challenging the US for full superpower status, but it can no longer call itself the biggest nation by numbers.

On current trends, the demographic gap will continue to widen rapidly, but what this means for their relative weight in the world will be decided by a host of other factors such as investment and governance. Demography is not destiny.

However, when the baton will be passed to India will sow doubt, suggesting the possible limits of China’s relentless rise in the 21st century. China’s population of 1.4 billion is expected to start shrinking soon and at an increasing rate.

As the world’s population reaches another milestone, our Beyond 8 Billion series examines the impact on some of the countries expected to grow the fastest, as well as those facing the opposite problem: falling birth rate and the rapid aging of the population.

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As the world’s population reaches another milestone, our Beyond 8 Billion series examines the impact on some of the countries expected to grow the fastest, as well as those facing the opposite problem: falling birth rate and the rapid aging of the population.

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“The presumption was that they were going to peak in population in 2028, but now it looks like they already have, and that’s a really big change,” said Ian Bremmer, president and founder of Eurasia. Group, a political risk research and advisory firm.

People visit the Bund promenade in Shanghai
People visit the Bund in Shanghai. China’s population is aging and the number of people over 65 is expected to double to 330 million by 2050. Photograph: Héctor Retamal/AFP/Getty Images

“The Chinese are facing a population contraction that is far greater than anything experienced by Japan or South Korea, and they are going to deal with it because they are still only a middle-income economy. So is a huge challenge for them,” he added.

Not only will China’s population decrease, but its age profile will also change. The explosion will no longer concern the generation of working age, but increasingly that of the elderly. The number of Chinese citizens over 65 will more than double by 2050, from 150 million to 330 million. There will be fewer and fewer people whose work will support more and more retirees. The profile will stop looking like an onion dome on a Russian church and start looking like a kite or coffin.

Exhibition at the Beijing Military Museum
China’s military spending is a bet that it will bend much of the world to its will for privileged access to resources. Photography: Florence Lo/Reuters

Chinese leaders could find ways to allow the country to grow, increasing the productivity of those who work, but that will take capital – and more and more over time. China is in a race, trying to get rich before it gets old.

Through this prism, China’s military spending is a gamble that it will bend much of the world to its will in order to gain privileged access to resources. But if that bet fails, Beijing will have spent a lot of capital that could have been used to adapt its economy to pervasive limits, leaving the country stuck in a middle-income trap.

India will face similar dilemmas as its population grows. There will be more Indians of working age relative to elderly parents they will need to fund, but leaders will need to be nimble to reap the demographic dividend.

Visitors gathered at India Gate in Delhi.  Will the growing number of young people in India be able to find a job?
Visitors gathered at India Gate in Delhi. Will the growing number of young people in India be able to find a job? Photography: Hindustan Times/Getty Images

“The demographic dividend does not happen automatically, because this large group of young people of working age needs to be in work and to be productive,” said Stuart Gietel-Basten, professor of humanities and social sciences at the Khalifa University of Abu Dhabi. .

Some countries have been able to seize the opportunity offered by the demographic dividend, such as South Korea or Singapore. Those who have not faced the challenge of increasing numbers of young people unable to find jobs, raising the prospect of unrest, which was the underlying dynamic of the 2011 Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria .

The determinants of success or failure can be many and varied, Gietel-Basten suggested. “It will be about resources, governance, infrastructure, location,” he said.

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi, center, visits the new pedestrian area of ​​Ahmedabad
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, center. Governance and infrastructure will be essential for India to reap the demographic dividend. Photo: Gujarat Department of Information/AFP/Getty Images

Carla Norrlöf, professor of political science at the University of Toronto, points out that outside powers such as the United States could seek to influence the relative development of the two population giants, by calibrating access to technologies that will help determine the growth of both.

“The United States is now really committed to limiting China’s economic influence, and so India could kind of piggyback on that if not targeted in terms of technological restrictions,” Norrlöf said.

By 2050, current trends suggest that only a few countries will account for all of the world’s population growth, most of them in Africa.

Hans Rosling, a Swedish doctor and academic, said the current ‘pin code’ in the world is 1114, which means there are around 1 billion people in the Americas, Europe and Africa and 4 billion in Asia . In 2050, the code will be 1145, with 4 billion in Africa and 5 billion in Asia.

It is possible that countries like Nigeria or Ethiopia will reap a dividend and get out of poverty. Whether they do so or not, Africa’s severe under-representation in global institutions, starting with the United Nations, is unlikely to be sustainable. Stewart Patrick, director of the global order and institutions program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that as the continent’s population grows, it will be at the center of ever-increasing geopolitical disputes.

“It will be a second stampede for Africa, with quite strong competition,” Patrick said. “Africa is obviously a source of huge amounts of raw materials, including oil and gas, but also raw materials for the clean energy transition, the kind of minerals you need to build batteries and things. like that.”

The commercial district of Lagos.
The commercial district of Lagos. It is possible that countries like Nigeria will reap a dividend and lift themselves out of poverty. Photography: peeterv/Getty Images/iStockphoto

The extent to which African countries are able to successfully manage their growth will only increase the amount of fossil fuels their growing populations will need to meet their expectations.

This increase in energy demand will not be offset by China’s declining population, as its smaller population will still struggle for middle-class lifestyles, which consume far more energy.

The greater the demographic gradient between a booming global South and a contracting North, the greater the migratory pressure.

It would make economic sense for the declining wealthy countries of North America and Europe to hire people to do the work needed to support their aging populations, but there is a backlash.

“There could be a kind of realization that aging populations in rich countries are a real problem and that they need to import more labor,” Norrlöf said. “But I think in the current political climate, that’s not what we’re seeing at all.”

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