Within a decade or so we will see a momentous shift in the global balance of power; China will cease to be the most populous nation on Earth. It will be overtaken by its southern neighbour, India. This is not only symbolically important (although it is that) but also has important economic implications. But do we really realise what a shift we will live through in the next decade? As Gordon Chang writes in the National Interest, China has been the world’s most populous states “for at least three centuries and perhaps for all recorded history”. But by 2022, according to the UN’s World Population Prospects: The 2015 Revision, China’s population will be overtaken by India’s. This prediction is actually six years’ earlier than the UN’s previous predicted crossover point, released only two years ago. In short, the country’s demographic (relative) decline is accelerating. Further, since the UN numbers are based upon the numbers provided by the figures themselves, there is a suspicion that the demographic slowdown is even worse that the UN is predicting.

And not only will China not be as populous as India, soon it will stop growing altogether and will, like it eastern neighbour Japan, start to see its population contract. As Gordon reports:

“And once the Chinese nation loses its demographic crown, it will fall fast. The country’s population will peak in 2028 according to the UN’s “World Population Prospects: The 2015 Revision,” released at the end of July. China in its peak year will have 1.42 billion people. By the end of the century, the country will be just a smidgen over a billion—and very, very gray…”

By 2068, the Indian population will peak at 1 and three-quarter billion souls. That will be 541 million more people than China will have. The Indian working-age population will also heavily outnumber its Chinese counterpart: after overtaking China within a decade, the number of people aged 15-59 in India will number over 1 billion by 2050, 375 million more than in China. The relative youth of India can be seen in its median age. In 2050 this figure will be 37.3 in India and 49.6 in China. Over 27 percent of China’s population will be over the age of 65, compared to 13.7 percent of India’s population.

But even these figures might be too sanguine:

“For example, the 2015 Revision, as noted, predicts China will peak in 2028. That’s unlikely, however. The high point will, in all probability, be closer to 2026, as the U.S. Census Bureau estimated a half decade ago, or 2025, as leading Chinese demographer Li Jianxin predicted. It could even be as early as 2020. That’s the year senior Chinese official Liu Mingkang, speaking at the Asia Global Dialogue in May 2012, admitted growth will end.

Changes in the workforce show similar fast erosion. The number of working age Chinese peaked in 2011 according to the official National Bureau of Statistics. As recently as the end of last decade, Beijing was predicting the highpoint would not be reached until 2016.”

This is all worrying for the Chinese government because for many decades now it has been riding a “demographic dividend” caused by a massive bulge in the Chinese working age population. As Gordon states, the end of this dividend does not necessarily mean that the economy will contract, but it does mean that the Chinese economy will be hindered by its demographic decline and not helped by it as it has been in the past.

Leaving aside the economic position, there is also the prestige and influence that many in China feel comes with being the world’s most populous nation.

“Many Chinese believe, understandably, that with population comes heft and with heft comes influence. ‘More people means more power,’ wrote ‘Fang Feng’ on the Strong Country Forum of the Communist Party’s People’s Daily a half decade ago. ‘This is the truth.’

The truth is that China will soon race pass an inflection point. ‘When you see a country’s population decline, the country will definitely degrade into a second-rate one,’ says Yao Yang of Peking University’s China Center for Economic Research.”

This all raises the question: how will China react in handing over the demographic number one spot to India? An article was written in August 2009 by Zhan Lue, a Chinese strategist connected to the Ministry of National Defence suggested that China try to break up India into as many as 30 independent states. Other, less radical, actions appear to have been taken:

“Since then, Beijing appears to have continued support to insurgents in India. Recently, Indian intelligence agencies and some in the Indian army contended that the senior leaders of NSCN-Khaplang, which was behind the killing of 18 Indian troopers in Manipur in early June, have ongoing contacts with China’s People’s Liberation Army. There are even suggestions that the PLA had urged the militants to break the ceasefire, thereby encouraging the killings.”

As Gordon notes, there is a risk that China will become more insecure in the years to come as the demographic cross over point fast approaches. Without being too alarmist, there is some history of conflict between these two nations in the not-too-distant past.  Let us hope we do not see a dramatic or traumatic demographic transition between these two giants.

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...