Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a weekly opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
Imagine a world in which the world’s most populous country is a democracy. Picture a time when an aging China has lost its place at the top, replaced by a young and dynamic India.
That moment is here. And it marks a shift that is only now beginning and could have major repercussions across the globe.
The United Nations Population Fund announced Wednesday that, according to its calculations, India’s 1.4 billion have already surpassed mainland China’s population, and will exceed all of China’s – including Hong Kong’s population – by the middle of this year.
We’ve all grown up thinking of China as the world’s most populous country. It has held that title since the UN started keeping records in 1950. It’s hard to imagine viewing that Asian colossus as anything but a surging, fast-growing power, ruled by an autocratic cadre of black-suited, black-haired apparatchiks.
But the world is changing – and the rise of India opens the door to a new era.
Is this shift at the top of the rankings merely a new label for India, or is the country prepared to turn its position into something more?
Becoming the world’s most populous country is sure to give India a burst of confidence. If it plays its cards right, India could become one of the planet’s most powerful players.
Imagine the economic might of China without its ugly taint of repression.
If India can meet the challenges it faces and develop its economy while embracing, improving and promoting its identity as the world’s biggest democracy, it could become a beacon for other nations. A nation whose success commands admiration; a country that becomes a force for good and garners massive benefits in return.
The rivalry between the two Asia giants, China and India, has reached a pivot point. This is not just a statistical curiosity. India has kept growing its often-rambunctious economy even as it has managed to tame its once-perilously high birthrate. China, meanwhile, has entered a demographic crisis that threatens its economic might.
In January, China announced that its population declined last year. It was the first time that had happened since 1961, when Mao Zedong’s co-called Great Leap Forward instead produced famine that killed tens of millions.
The 2022 contraction marked the beginning of a long-anticipated phenomenon triggered by China’s now-scrapped one-child policy, a policy with potentially calamitous consequences.
In addition to shrinking, China’s population is growing older. The number of working-age Chinese compared to its number of retirees is declining rapidly.
In contrast, India’s old-age dependency ratio, as the figure is known, is one of the lowest among major economies. A growing majority of Indians are of working, productive age.
Because Chinese couples were for decades not allowed to have more than one child, those children will have to bear the burden of keeping the economy going, while also facing overwhelming personal responsibility for their elders.
Every child is singly responsible for helping two parents and four grandparents as they grow older.
That’s known as the 4-2-1 inverted pyramid, and its costly duties are one of the reasons why so many Chinese couples decided not to have big families even after the one-child policy was lifted in 2016, replaced with generous incentives to have more children.
China’s demographic crisis is arriving faster than predicted, with major ramifications not only for the country but for a world that has grown accustomed to surging demand from Chinese markets. China has exploited that economic muscle, which could now weaken.
It has used that influence to promote its system of government and, along with Russia, to discredit democracy, the competing system.
Now India is in a position to overtake China’s global influence, but it faces major challenges of its own.
Today, after decades of breakneck economic growth, China’s population is much wealthier than India’s. But India is accelerating, its economy projected by the World Bank to be among the fastest growing this year.
Still, India has to create hundreds of millions of jobs for a population that remains largely impoverished. As Chandrasekhar Sripada, a professor of organizational behavior at the Indian School of Business told CNN, “India is sitting on a time bomb.” Without more good jobs, social unrest could erupt.
Experts say India needs to raise its educational levels, keep women in the workforce and develop its infrastructure.
The timing – right now – offers special opportunities.
Global investors and world powers are having second thoughts about business dealings with China. It turns out that putting your money in countries ruled by dictatorships can create complications.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine clarified the issue. When Russia threatened oil and gas supplies to the West, its clients understood the risk. China’s support of Russia and its continuing threats against Taiwan – the world’s main producer of advanced microchips – led many countries and firms to reconsider dependence on China.
In addition, China’s frequent, if usually-temporary, disappearances of business moguls underscored the fragility of the rule of law and the unpredictability of its business environment.
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As a result, the trend now is toward near-shoring and friend-shoring, bringing production to closer, friendlier, countries. It’s a golden opportunity for India to emerge as one of the winners from tensions between China and the West.
India has long sought to carve a path for itself independent of the main global powers. It was a leading force in the non-aligned movement during the Cold War. Even now, it has declined to side against Russia after it invaded Ukraine, instead boosting trade with Moscow by taking advantage of its cut-rate fuel prices.
But India should play up the fact that it is a democracy to further leverage its emerging status as the world’s biggest country.
India’s democracy is far from perfect. In recent years, it has been backsliding. Freedom House rates the country “Partly Free,” noting the rise in discriminatory policies against Muslims and harassment of journalists and government critics.
Still, it is a multiparty democracy. If it continues developing its economy, boosting its standard of living and strengthening its democratic institutions and practices, India could become not just a major world power, but one of the most inspiring and influential ones.