The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion India just passed China in population. That’s good news for America.

An Indian Navy aircraft carrier leaves Kochi, India, for sea trials in August 2022. (Indian Navy/AP)
7 min

A historic event occurred at the end of April: According to estimates from the United Nations, India, with more than 1.4 billion people, surpassed China in population. Many news stories noted this shift but actually undersold its significance by cautiously claiming that China has had the world’s largest population only for a few centuries. In fact, Jack Goldstone, a professor of public policy at George Mason University, tells me that evidence suggests China has been the world’s most-populous polity throughout recorded history — with records dating back more than 2,000 years.

So to see India become the most populous state is an epochal shift. Though India’s population advantage is slight at the moment, it will grow over time. According to U.N. projections, by 2050, India will have nearly 358 million more people than China. By 2100, it will have nearly double China’s population, with 1.5 billion Indians to 766 million Chinese.

Demographics is not destiny, of course. But, at a minimum, this trend makes it less likely that the 21st century will be the “Chinese century,” as so many have either hoped or feared. It probably won’t be an Indian century, either, but India’s potential to exercise global influence — and check China’s power — has never been greater. That’s good news for the United States.

From a geopolitical perspective, China’s shrinking population might be more significant than India’s growing population. Driven down in part by the now-rescinded one-child policy, China’s fertility plummeted in 2021 to just 1.16 children per woman — far below replacement level. China had 850,000 fewer people in 2022 than in 2021, and its working-age population has been declining since 2012. By 2080, if current trends hold, “the number of seniors over 65 in China will surpass the working age population (15-64),” Goldstone writes in Noema magazine.

Other East Asian countries, such as South Korea and Japan, face similar demographic quandaries, but they are much wealthier on a per capita basis. China is growing old before it grows rich. “China’s demography has set it on a course for disaster that will be difficult and perhaps impossible to avoid,” Goldstone warns.

India faces its own problems with an aging population, but its fertility rate (2.0 children per woman) is still higher than China’s and its populace is significantly younger. More than half of the Indian population is under 30 and the median age is just 28 — a decade younger than in China. “The issue for India,” former U.S. ambassador to India Kenneth I. Juster told me, “is whether, with its young population and growth possibilities, it can convert the demographic dividend in its favor. Or will demographics become a problem for India because it won’t be able to productively employ enough of its youth?”

For the most bullish pro-India case, see economic journalist Noah Smith’s Substack post: “Here … comes … INDIA!!!” He argues that India’s economic growth, while slower than China’s, has been “truly spectacular,” averaging roughly 7 percent a year for decades, compared with China’s 10 percent growth per year. Last year, India overtook Britain as the world’s fifth-largest economy and, this year, it is expected to be the fastest-growing in the world. By the end of the decade, India could become the world’s third-largest economy — behind only the United States and China.

Smith argues that, thanks to recent investments in infrastructure, “India has most of the raw ingredients necessary to industrialize.” India should receive a major boost from Western firms eager to move supply chains out of China amid U.S.-China tensions. “In 2021,” Smith notes, “only 1% of iPhones were made in India; two years later, it’s approaching 7%, with a planned increase to 40-45%.” Already more than 750 million Indians use the internet — more than twice the total U.S. population — and those numbers will only continue to grow. “When a country has 1.4 billion people, a booming economy, and an open society,” Smith concludes, “there’s really very little limit to its potential influence.”

Not so fast, counters Sadanand Dhume of the American Enterprise Institute. During an interview with me (and in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal), he points out that India faces major obstacles to realize its potential.

India’s education system, Dhume notes, lags far behind China’s. Only about three-quarters of Indians are literate, compared with nearly all Chinese. India does even worse at utilizing women in the workforce: At just 19 percent, its female labor-force participation rate is one of the lowest in the world — and far behind China’s 61 percent. Manufacturing’s share of India’s economy actually declined between 2000 and 2021. Dhume writes: “Almost half of the Indian workforce makes subsistence livings on small family farms, compared with only about 25% of Chinese and 1% of Americans.”

To his credit, Narendra Modi is the most pro-business prime minister India has ever had. He has been building infrastructure at a breakneck pace and trying to simplify the mind-boggling regulations known as the “license raj” that impede the private sector — and fuel corruption. But, as a Hindu nationalist, Modi has favored domestic firms (“national champions”) and boosted tariffs as part of his “Make in India” campaign. That makes India less attractive as a destination for multinational companies that want to assemble high-tech goods with parts from all over the world.

Modi is also undermining Indian democracy — his party just expelled the opposition leader from Parliament — and turning India’s 200 million Muslims into second-class citizens. No country can afford to sideline so much potential talent, especially given the discrimination already suffered by 200 million low-caste Hindus (the Dalits or “untouchables”).

Since the George W. Bush administration, the United States has been wooing India as a potential ally. That policy has had some success, especially after clashes in 2020 and 2021 between Indian and Chinese troops along the Himalayan frontier. India has joined “The Quad,” a loose security grouping that includes the United States, Japan and Australia, and Modi will arrive in Washington next month for a state visit.

But in a recent Foreign Affairs article, Ashley J. Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace cautions that, while India is eager for U.S. military aid, it will never take the United States’ side in a war with China over Taiwan. Nor is India sanctioning its longtime weapons-supplier, Russia, for the invasion of Ukraine.

Tellis told me that “India’s population ‘achievement’ suggests that it still remains the only Asian power with the natural capacity to balance China, if — and it is a big if — it can get its act together.” But, he added, “although the U.S. should continue to partner with India to balance China in the Indo-Pacific, it will inevitably have to bear a disproportionate responsibility for successfully maintaining an Asian balance of power.”

We shouldn’t underestimate the difficulties of translating India’s demographic dividend into economic and military power, nor should we overestimate India’s inclination to side with the West. But Americans should cautiously celebrate the shifting demographics of Asia that put an illiberal rival — China — at a growing economic disadvantage while giving a vibrant, still-democratic India the opportunity to achieve greater levels of power and prosperity. (Give that country a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council!) As long as India continues to rise, China will have to look warily over its shoulder at its more populous neighbor. From the U.S. perspective, that can’t be a bad thing.