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 largest economic power, the one that will challenge the United States for full superpower status, but it will no longer be able to call itself the largest nation in numbers.
Under 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 number of other factors such as investment and governance. Demographics are not destiny.
However, the moment the baton is passed to India will cast a seed of doubt, suggesting possible limits to China’s unstoppable rise in the 21st century. China’s 1.4 billion population is expected to start shrinking soon and at an increasing pace.
“The presumption was that they would reach their maximum population limit in 2028, but now it looks like they have already done so, and this is a very big change,” said Ian Bremmer, president and founder of Eurasia Group, a research on risk. politician and consulting firm.
“The Chinese are facing a population shrinkage that is far greater than anything Japan or South Korea experienced, and they will face it as they are still only a middle income economy, so this is a huge challenge for them. , ” He added.
Not only will China’s population shrink, but its age profile will also change. The bulge will no longer be in the generation of working age, but increasingly among the elderly. The number of Chinese citizens over 65 will double by 2050, from 150 million to 330 million. There will be fewer and fewer people whose jobs will support more and more retirees. The profile will cease to resemble an onion dome on a Russian church and will begin to look like a kite or coffin.
The Chinese leadership could find a way to allow the country to grow by increasing the productivity of those who work, but it will require capital – and more and more as time goes on. China is in the running, trying to get rich before it gets old.
Through this prism, China’s military spending is a gamble that will bend much of the world to its will in order to gain privileged access to resources. But if that gamble fails, Beijing will have spent a lot of capital that could have been used to adjust its economy to invasive 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 than elderly parents who will have to finance, but management will need to be agile to reap the demographic dividend.
“The democratic dividend does not happen automatically, because that large group of young people of working age need jobs and have to be productive,” said Stuart Gietel-Basten, professor of humanities and social sciences at Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi.
Some countries have managed to seize the opportunity offered by the demographic dividend, such as South Korea and Singapore. Those who have not faced the challenge of increasing the number of young people unable to find a job, raising the prospect of unrest, which were the dynamics behind the 2011 Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria.
The determinants of success or failure can be many and varied, Gietel-Basten suggested. “It’s going to be about resources, governance, infrastructure, location,” she said.
Carla Norrlöf, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto, points out that external 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 drive growth in both.
“The US is now very determined to limit China’s economic influence, and therefore India may somehow follow it if it is not targeted in terms of technological restrictions,” Norrlöf said.
By 2050, current trends suggest that only a few countries will account for the entire world population growth, most in Africa.
Hans Rosling, a Swedish physician and academic, said the current “pin code” in the world is 1114, which means there are roughly 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 could reap a dividend and get out of poverty. Whether or not they do, Africa’s severe under-representation in global institutions, starting with the United Nations, is unlikely to be sustainable. Stewart Patrick, program director for global order and institutions at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that as the continent’s population grows, it will be at the center of more and more geopolitical disputes.
“It will be a second race for Africa, with pretty strong competition,” said Patrick. “Africa is obviously a source of a huge amount of raw materials, including oil and gas, but also raw materials for the clean energy transition, the kind of minerals needed to build batteries and things like that.”
The degree to which African countries will be able to successfully manage their growth will only increase the amount of fossil fuels their growing populations will need to meet their expectations.
That bulge in energy demand will not be offset by China’s shrinking population, as its smaller population will still be on the hunt for much more energy-consuming middle-class lifestyles.
The steeper the demographic gradient grows between a growing global south and a shrinking north, the greater the migratory pressure.
It would make economic sense for the shrinking rich nations of North America and Europe to welcome people to do the work to support their aging populations, but that brings a backlash.
“There may be some kind of awareness that population aging in rich countries is a real problem and 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.”