IN-DEPTH: As India’s Population Surpasses China’s, Experts Say Get Ready for a Power Shift

IN-DEPTH: As India’s Population Surpasses China’s, Experts Say Get Ready for a Power Shift
People walk through a market in Bangalore, India, on Nov. 15, 2022. (Manjunath Kiran/AFP via Getty Images)
Venus Upadhayaya
4/28/2023
Updated:
4/28/2023
0:00

According to the United Nations, this week, India will outstrip China as the world’s most populous country. This monumental change of status between the two Asian giants that share a long, militarized Himalayan border indicates the burgeoning possibility of change in their respective global statuses, enhanced competition, and the chance of war, according to experts.

Demographics play a key role in geopolitics which presents both opportunities and challenges, according to experts who said if India’s policymakers overcome the challenges, the population increase translates into massive political, economic, and military power, which threatens adversaries like China.

“You can compare this situation with US-China competition. Power shift theory indicates that the ‘declining US’ is threatened by rising China. Before WWI, declining Britain was threatened by rising Germany. Now India is catching up with China, and China is worrying about India’s rise,” Dr. Satoru Nagao, a visiting fellow at the Washington-based The Hudson, told The Epoch Times in an email.

Contrary to popular belief, according to Nagao, the United States is staying strong. But people think the United States is declining. “Thus, the U.S. is worrying China too.”

“China is rising now, but the population indicates they will face an aging society in the coming decades. Before China declines, China would want to attack India,” he said.

India and China have accounted for over two-thirds of the global population since the mid-twentieth century. The birth rate in China plunged last year for the first time since 1961. China also lost a significant chunk of its population during the COVID pandemic.
India’s fertility rates have dropped to 2.2 births per woman, but DESA (a UN think tank ) predicts India’s population will continue growing for several decades.

Frank Lehberger, a Germany-based Sinologist and geo-political analyst, told The Epoch Times that the most direct benefit for India surpassing China in population is gaining global recognition as a leading engine of economic growth, able to attract a growing volume of foreign investments and develop its export industries at a faster pace than before.

“India seems well on the road of becoming the ‘next China,’ with a golden decade of India gradually materializing. However, that era dawns only if no major war erupts, by accident or design, involving both Russia with its new quasi-ally China,” said Lehberger.

Meanwhile, China’s economy has been hammered in recent years due to the communist regime’s draconian zero-COVID policies, severely disrupting businesses and factories nationwide. Experts are expecting slow growth shortly. According to a recent analysis by Michael Pettis, a nonresident senior fellow with Carnegie China, Beijing’s annual GDP growth is unlikely to exceed 2 to 3 percent for many years.
However, India was one of the best-performing economies last year, and its GDP growth outpaced China’s in the previous quarter, according to the World Economic Forum. In 2022, China posted one of its worst economic performances in nearly half a century.

According to Morgan Stanley, New Delhi is further estimated to be the third-largest economy by 2027, overtaking Japan and Germany, while its global exports are expected to double by 2031.

Lehberger said China under Xi will remain undeterred or unimpressed by India and continue attempting to gradually occupy tracts of land on the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

“Of course, only if it suits Xi in his internal agenda. Therefore he might still start short skirmishes at the LAC, more or less the same as the ones we have seen several times since May 2020,” said Lehberger.

This video screenshot taken from footage recorded in mid-June 2020 and released by China Central Television (CCTV) on Feb. 20, 2021, shows Chinese (foreground) and Indian (background) soldiers during a clash on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Galwan Valley. (AFP Photo/China Central Television)
This video screenshot taken from footage recorded in mid-June 2020 and released by China Central Television (CCTV) on Feb. 20, 2021, shows Chinese (foreground) and Indian (background) soldiers during a clash on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Galwan Valley. (AFP Photo/China Central Television)

Far-Reaching Implications

India surpassing China’s population is not an ordinary country but a country with an equally ancient civilization and a functional world’s largest democracy. Thus, the geopolitical implications of India becoming the world’s most populous country are far-reaching and complex, according to experts.

Nagao said the implications are positive and negative—a massive population means a massive market, which indicates enhanced economic and military power.

“Especially India’s population is young. This means that they create active energy in the society,” said Nagao.

Sixty-six percent of India’s population is 18-35, according to the International Labor Organization, and the Indian labor force is set to grow by 8 million annually, most of which will be driven by youth entering the labor market.

Lehberger said that India’s population’s first and more visible results in international diplomacy would likely be it’s increased contending for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

“Enabling any government in Delhi of wielding veto power in international interactions is something which the Chinese have stubbornly tried to prevent for several decades,” said Lehberger.

Being the most populous democracy on the planet is also believed to boost India’s nuclear capabilities, he said.

“The need for energy and resources is constantly increasing, driving India’s nuclear energy program forward, with the help of Japan, France, or the U.S.,” said Lehberger, adding that India’s growing nuclear defense capabilities could be put to good use as a strategic deterrent to China and other less friendly regional powers, such as Pakistan or Turkey.

It could also be used as a tool for power projection from the Gulf to Singapore and along the entire east coast of Africa, according to Lehberger.

He said that the Indian nuclear triad, meaning its land-based inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBM), submarines with ICBMs constantly patrolling underwater in stealth mode, and its strategic aircraft carrying nuclear bombs or missiles, could, therefore, in a matter of years, match or even surpass that of China at current levels.

[Thus] “making Chinese military attacks on Indian assets and territories rather implausible.”

Since ancient times, geography has contributed significantly to India’s rise in power. Even today, according to experts, having outstripped China’s population, geography, and particularly its oceans, has raised India’s stakes in geopolitics.

Lehberger called it “favorable geography” and said that India should use it now with its burgeoning markets and increasing defense capability to project hard and sharp power and condemn the Chinese to remain trapped in disparate bases such as Hambantota, Sri Lanka; Gwadar, Pakistan; or smaller ones on the Myanmar coast.

“Modern Submarine and surface units like nuclear carriers would then help India become the foremost naval power in the entire Indian Ocean region, securing the international sea lanes from the Persian Gulf to the strategic Malacca and Lombok Straits through which roughly 40 percent of world trade in goods and commodities flows on a daily basis,” he said.

Lehberger believes as this situation evolves, India will become the primary challenger, geopolitically, militarily, and diplomatically for China and vice-versa.

“As the two countries compete globally for resources, investment and trade, and political influence, for example, soft power, the potential for escalating military conflict could increase, particularly in the nuclear domain,” said Lehberger.

According to Lehberger, China challenging India will exist until the Chinese communist regime is defeated externally or implodes under the weight of its political and socio-economic contradictions, similar to the Soviet Union in 1991.

South Korea's President Moon Jae-in (center left) shakes hands with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi (center right) as Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh state Yogi Adityanath (R) looks on during the inauguration of the world's largest smartphone factory in Noida, India on July 9, 2018. (Money Sharma/AFP/Getty Images)
South Korea's President Moon Jae-in (center left) shakes hands with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi (center right) as Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh state Yogi Adityanath (R) looks on during the inauguration of the world's largest smartphone factory in Noida, India on July 9, 2018. (Money Sharma/AFP/Getty Images)

Challenges for India

According to experts, India outstripping China in population means how many other internal challenges are dealt with would determine if the changing demography brings increased opportunities or increased crisis.

Burzine Waghmar, Visiting India Fellow, Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and SOAS South Asia Institute, London, told the Epoch Times in an email that India was the first modern state to implement a family planning policy in 1952, which continues to date. China’s one-child policy directive was enforced in 1980 and discontinued in 2016.

He cautioned that one-third of India’s projected growth would mostly happen in the states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, and both are socio-economically poor. “Where decline is most pronounced and expected to continue is in the southern states, which are more advanced on all social indicators and where falling birth rates are in tandem with an increase in the aging population. For example, one in five Keralites, by 2025, will be over 60,” said Waghmar, adding that this will have internal political consequences for some time as it will feed north-south disparity in the country, leading to long-standing issues of regionalism and representation.

He also pointed out that this surge in population, which denotes an increase in the workforce compared to what is occurring in China, is only partially in India’s favor. It will continue to face severe challenges as Indian unemployment remains above 7 percent. The booming services and IT sector, which has fuelled much of India’s recent prosperity, will not be able to absorb everyone, especially the 254 million Indians aged 15-24.

“PM [Narendra] Modi will have to factor this in as he stands for reelection next year and New Delhi attempts to capitalize on the current trend among western supply chains to relocate from China,” said Waghmar.

According to Lehberger, successive governments will face a considerable array of social and economic problems if they don’t come up with solutions to the issues that accompany opportunities.

“And especially if those future governments do not manage to decrease levels of poverty, inequality, unemployment among the large low-skilled workforce, as well as related environmental degradation, all of which are putting a considerable strain on India’s political fabric, on the distribution of natural resources, and on modern infrastructure,” Lehberger said.

The government will almost certainly face increased logistical problems while caring for the needs of its citizens. Among them is the increase of suitable employment opportunities for India’s huge semi- or low-skilled workforce, according to Lehberger.

He said India should be cautious of China’s attempts to influence India to toe the China line in the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) and SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization).

“So as to gradually become an unwitting accessory to counter or even obliterate leading democracies as well as the established international rules-based order that they represent. To achieve their goal, both Putin and Xi hope to capitalize on Indian nonaligned traditions as well as anti-Western undercurrents and reflexes,” Lehberger said.

As the competition between India and China intensifies, India should build its defenses against  Chinese predatory investment and technological colonization.

“As India navigates these challenges and seeks to maintain or expand her strategic interests, one thing is clear, however: India’s growing population will continue to shape its role in the world for years to come,” said Lehberger.

Venus Upadhayaya reports on India, China, and the Global South. Her traditional area of expertise is in Indian and South Asian geopolitics. Community media, sustainable development, and leadership remain her other areas of interest.
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