It’s a double-edged milestone, reflected in the way the two countries are marking the occasion.
The Chinese government has been muted in its response to the United Nations’ recent declaration that India — Beijing‘s primary economic and military rival in the Indo-Pacific — is on pace to surpass China next year as the world’s most populous nation. China has held that title for centuries.
India has responded with cautious gratification. Regional analysts generally agree that the development deserves careful attention for its short- and long-term implications for the global pecking order.
Although poverty and overpopulation are likely to remain major challenges, India is about to arrive at No. 1 above China in a key symbolic category that could dramatically boost New Delhi‘s stature on the global stage.
“There is most definitely something powerful about the idea of India becoming the world’s most populous country,” said Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.
“For India to surpass China, its larger and more powerful strategic rival, on any front is significant,” Mr. Kugelman said after the U.N. population announcement, which coincided with World Population Day in July.
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“For us to be talking about getting closer to the day when India becomes more populous than China — that says a lot about India‘s power, its geostrategic significance and its overall place in a world where it has long sought to take on a larger role,” he said.
Some in India have been trumpeting that sentiment. The Times of India, one of New Delhi‘s most influential newspapers, alerted readers that the country is on the verge of retaking a longtime bragging point from China.
“In a few months, India‘s population will surpass China‘s and mark a historic shift last seen 300 years ago,” the paper stated. More than “63,000 children are born in India every day while China has less than half that, 29,000,” and “China‘s population shrunk for the first time in 60 years in 2022 while India‘s will continue to grow for the next 40.”
The Press Trust of India cited U.N. population official John Wilmoth as telling a press conference that India‘s emergence as the most populous nation could “strengthen” New Delhi‘s long-frustrated campaign to become a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council.
The U.N. “World Population Prospects 2022” report declared that the world’s population will reach 8 billion in mid-November and that India will overtake China sometime next year.
The U.S. Census Bureau puts the U.S. population at roughly 337 million. The U.N. report characterized India and China as far above that, with about 1.4 billion apiece. Those numbers triggered debate among population data scholars because of uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.
National population ranks over time can show where the world’s opportunities and challenges are likely. In 2000, Nigeria was the only African nation in the world’s top 10 by population — at No. 10. By 2050, U.N. demographers said, Nigeria will be third in the world after surpassing the U.S. They said Congo and Ethiopia also will be in the top 10.
Russia and Japan, securely in the top 10 in 2000, will fall off the list altogether by 2050 if current trends hold.
Indian census figures put the population at 1.21 billion in 2011, according to Reuters. The news agency noted that a census is conducted every 10 years but New Delhi deferred the 2021 count because of the pandemic.
The U.N. report acknowledged that the “pandemic has affected all components of population change, including fertility, mortality and migration.”
The report said India is projected to experience substantial population growth over the coming two decades and “China is expected to experience an absolute decline in its population as early as 2023.”
The one-child effect
Analysts say the reasons for the drop in China is multifold, but the most prominent is tied to the one-child family policy that Beijing began enforcing to restrain population growth when it was a far more impoverished nation in 1980. Anxiety over declining population growth and birthrates prompted the government to ease the policy in recent years. Beijing allowed two children per family in 2016 and three per family in 2021.
It remains to be seen whether and how that will affect the situation over the long term. In the interim, China experts and state-run media have focused intensely on the implications of a shrinking population.
Some have tied China‘s long history of population growth to its emergence as a contemporary economic power. They suggest that a population decline could curtail that power.
“The overall arrangement of social and economic development needs to be adjusted to adapt to the new pattern of population growth,” Lu Jiehua, a professor of sociology at Peking University, told China‘s Global Times newspaper.
“For a long time in the past, China has relied on demographic dividend to drive economic development. In the future, the demographic dividend may gradually decline or go into debt,” Mr. Lu said. “In this case, we should explore advantages in areas beyond the demographic dividend to fully improve the overall quality of the population and create new conditions for economic development.”
A separate Global Times article by reporter Hu Weijia asserted that India‘s population expansion should “in theory” propel its economic growth the same way China‘s “demographic dividends fueled its economic boom.”
“Some observers pay close attention to whether India will surpass China [in population] because they see the replacement as a prelude for India to take on China‘s mantle as the factory of the world,” the article stated.
Although India‘s software and pharmaceutical sectors have excelled in recent decades, it said, the country has struggled to establish a manufacturing sector capable of absorbing soaring numbers of young workers into decent-paying jobs.
World Bank figures show India continues to climb the global rankings in gross domestic product but has a way to go before challenging China or the United States economically.
India‘s GDP was ranked sixth in the world in 2021, just above France, which has a population of 65 million people.
Although Mr. Kugelman said powerful symbolism is associated with India‘s emergence as the world’s most populous nation, he stressed that the development “will also amplify some of India‘s long-standing and, to this point, insurmountable challenges.”
“India‘s population growth has contributed to persistent poverty and unemployment,” he said. “It has prevented New Delhi from capitalizing on its demographic dividend: In effect, it has prevented India from taking advantage of having so many young people, because there are not enough jobs for them and because too many of them lack the education or vocational skills to get jobs and contribute meaningfully to economic growth.”