Down for the count: India to surpass China soon as world’s most populous nation


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, a title that China has held for centuries.

India, by contrast, has responded with cautious gratification and regional analysts generally agreed the development deserves careful attention for its short- and long-term implications for the global pecking order.

While poverty and overpopulation are likely to remain major challenges for India, the country 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 in an interview following 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.

It’s a sentiment some in India have been trumpeting over the past month, with The Times of India, one of New Delhi’s most influential newspapers, alerting readers that the country is on the verge of retaking a bragging point China has enjoyed for so long.

“In a few months, India’s population will surpass China’s and mark a historic shift last seen 300 years ago,” the paper stated, claiming more than “63,000 children are born in India every day while China has less than half that, 29,000,” and that “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 on the new population projections that India’s emergence as the most populous nation could “strengthen” New Delhi’s long-frustrated campaign to be a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council.

The U.N. World Population Prospects 2022 report, released a month ago, declared that the world’s population will reach 8 billion in mid-November and that India will overtake China sometime in the course of 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 in 2022 – numbers that triggered debate among population data scholars, due to uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.

The country population ranks over time can tell a story of where the globe’s opportunities and challenges are likely to come. In 2000, for example, Nigeria was the only African nation in the world’s top 10 by population – at No. 10. By 2050, U.N demographers forecast, Nigeria will be third in the world, surpassing the U.S., with Congo and Ethiopia also making the top 10.

Russia and Japan, both securely in the top ten in 2000, fall out of the list altogether by 2050, if current trends hold.

Indian census figures put India’s population at 1.21 billion in 2011,  according to Reuters, which noted the census gets conducted every 10 years, but that New Delhi deferred the 2021 count due to the pandemic.

The July U.N. report acknowledged that the “pandemic has affected all components of population change, including fertility, mortality and migration.”

But the report cited India among countries projected to experience substantial population growth over the coming two decades, while stating bluntly that “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 China was a far poorer nation back in 1980. Anxiety over declining population growth and birth rates prompted the government to begin easing the policy in recent years, with Beijing allowing two children per family in 2016 and three per family in 2021.

But it remains to be seen whether and how that will impact the situation over the long term. In the interim, Chinese 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 the country’s emergence as a contemporary economic power, suggesting that power could be curtailed by population decline going forward.

“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 in the wake of the U.N. report.

“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,” said Mr. Lu. “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 the country’s 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.

It went on to argue, however, that while India’s software and pharmaceutical sectors have excelled in recent decades, 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 GDP rankings, but has a ways to go before challenging China or the United States economically.

India’s GDP was ranked 6th in 2021, just above France, which has a population of just 65 million people — roughly 20 times fewer than India’s 1.4 billion.

While Mr. Kugelman said there is powerful symbolism associated with India’s emergence as world’s most populous nation, he stressed that the development ” will also amplify some of India’s longstanding 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.”

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