For avid readers of this blog, I’m sure there are a few of you out there – after all, what else are you going to do in a lockdown world — it will be no surprise that I love maps. Colourful maps especially. I believe that the death of the fold-up car travel map at the hands of Google maps and smartphones was a sad day.

But this cartographile impulse of mine also seeps out and extends to other colourful diagrams, graphs and tables. (I must be a visual learner, which is surprising as I was always a textual note taker at university…but I digress.) 

Over at there is a great interactive graph of the changing populations of the two most populous countries in the world: China and India. And what is striking is that, after centuries of clear Chinese population advantage over its southern neighbour, we are rapidly approaching the point in time when the two lines of the graph will converge and India will be more populous than the Middle Kingdom.  

Just over two hundred years ago when Arthur Wellesley was winning the battle of Assaye, the Indian subcontinent had about half as many people in it as China (169 vs 322 million). Just over one hundred years ago, in the fading years of the Qing dynasty, the populations were in a roughly comparable state, China had 400 million people and India about 240 million. It was about the time that the British Raj ended and that the Communist Party came to power that the two countries’ populations skyrocketed. By 1980 China had hit one billion people, at the same time India was approaching 700 million. By 1997 India had itself reached the one billion mark, but China was now at 1.25 billion.  

But while India’s population was still increasing rapidly at the turn of the millennium, China’s growth rate was slowing. Today, India has around 60 million people fewer than China’s 1.44 billion but is still growing, while China’s population has plateaued. Within a few years, and certainly by 2030, India will be the more populous country in the world and China will have slipped from that perch for the first time in centuries.  

In the decades ahead, according to the UN’s 2019 Medium Scenario projection, India’s population will continue to grow until around 2055 when it too will peak at around 1.65 bilion people. At that time, China’s population will have shrunk to around 1.36 billion and will be declining further. By the end of the 21st century it is predicted that the Indian population will be around 1.45 billion people (the same number at which it is expected to overtake China sometime this decade). China in 2100 will be close to one billion people, that is, its population in the early 1980s.  

Aside from the headline population figures, there are some other notable demographic statistics to be aware of. While China’s population is rapidly ageing and its working aged population is declining, India’s workforce is taking off. Currently 65 percent of India’s population is aged 35 or below. This will help propel India’s economy such that, while it may not overtake China’s anytime soon, it will be a much stronger competitor economically than it is today.  

All of this means that India will be more important economically and geopolitically in the years ahead and that this may see tensions rise further between China and India. Let us not forget that there have been border clashes this year between the two most populous countries in the world and that India is a member of the Quad security dialogue aimed squarely at keeping China in check.  

Marcus Roberts is a Senior Researcher at the Maxim Institute in Auckland, New Zealand, and was co-editor of the former MercatorNet blog, Demography is Destiny. Marcus has a background in the law, both...