The news out of the Himalayas is that both sides of the Chinese-Indian conflict are trying to ease tensions after clashes in which there were a number of troops killed and wounded on both sides in what appears to have been hand-to-hand fighting. This is of course good news: the two most populous nations in the world are also nuclear powers and any hot conflict between China and India has the danger of disastrous escalation. Whether the clashes will slowdown India’s infrastructure development in the area which seems to have drawn China’s ire is unclear. Linked to that question is whether the Chinese Communist Party leadership will be further emboldened by India’s (and the rest of the world’s) response or will it perceive that it has received a check by India standing up to it? In short, will it see its military pressure as successful and therefore to be repeated elsewhere? Or not?

Against that background, it might be useful to reacquaint ourselves with some of the underlying demographic changes in both countries.  Perhaps the most striking sign of these changes is the next couple of years will see India overtake China as the most populous nation, if it has not already done so. (A demographic cross-over I noted five years ago here).  At the moment the two nations have roughly the same number of people, but the next couple of decades will see a divergence: China’s population will slowly start to decline (it will have dropped by about 30 million people by the middle of the century) while India’s will continue to grow by about 100 million people per decade. Thus, according to UN estimates, by 2050 the Indian population will be a quarter of a billion people more than China’s. By the end of the century both countries’ populations will be dropping, but India’s population will have extended its lead over China so that the subcontinent will be 40 per cent more populous than the Middle Kingdom.

Furthermore, the makeup of these two populations are also diverging. Thanks to China’s one-child policy and years of anti-family propaganda, the Chinese population is already much older than India’s. In fact, the absolute number of working age people in China (25-64 year olds) has already peaked and is starting to decline. The number of children (0-14 year olds) and young adults (15-24 years) have been declining for decades: the number of children peaked in the mid-1970s (before the one-child policy came into effect) and that of youth peaked about the turn of the millennium. Although an ageing population is common for many countries around the world going through a demographic transition as birth rates decline, China’s situation is slightly different. Its population is ageing prior to the country becoming economically developed and is getting old before getting rich. Again, the one-child policy can be blamed for that.

India’s working aged population, meanwhile, is expected to keep growing and peak in about 2050 when it will be over 800 million strong. While China’s economy will have the drag of an ageing population (by 2050 one third of the country will be 60 years or older) and a shrinking working aged population, India’s population is expected to follow a more traditional demographic path. Its population will continue to grow before shifting into a declining and greying phase after 2050.

Underlying Chinese-Indian tensions are these tectonic demographic forces. Perhaps what we are seeing in the Himalayas, in Hong Kong, in the Taiwan Strait and in the South China Sea is a nation lashing out as it confronted with demographic and economic pressures that it cannot reverse.

Marcus Roberts

Marcus Roberts was two years out of law school when he decided that practising law was no longer for him. He therefore went back to university and did his LLM while tutoring. He now teaches contract and...