by Maurizio Sacchi
India, with a population of 1 billion 425,775,850, has overtaken China as the most populous country in the world. As of December 2022, China’s population was 1 billion 411,800, according to UN population estimates, the most significant change in global demography since records have existed. According to UN projections, calculated based on a number of factors including census data and birth and death rates, India has now overtaken China for the first time. It is also the first time since 1950, i.e. since the UN began keeping global population records, that China has been knocked off the top spot.
This overtaking is even more significant when one considers the age composition of the two Asian giants. China is ageing rapidly. According to current projections, 34% of the Chinese population will be over 60 years old by 2050 (today it is about 12%). Currently, the average age in India is only 29 and the country will continue to have a largely young population for the next two decades. Today, an average of 86,000 children a day are born in India, compared to only 49,400 in China.
The population decline follows decades of strict laws to control the birth boom, including the Beijing government’s introduction of the one-child policy in the 1980s. This included fines for those who exceeded this quota, but also forced abortions and sterilisations. The country is now grappling with an ageing population, which could have serious economic consequences. Moreover, due to the traditional preference for males, the one-child policy has led to a huge gender imbalance. Men now outnumber women by about 32 million. In 2015, the Chinese government changed course to allow all families to have up to two children.
Despite the vast echo this overtaking has had in the world media, the balance of power, economic, military and strategic, remains very much in China’s favour. In 1990 the economic size of the two nations was equal – 321 billion GDP for India, 360 billion for China – while today the Dragon’s is worth five times that of India. According to data from the International Monetary Fund, China is second in the world rankings by Gross Domestic Product, with $16,911 billion annually, while India is fifth, with $3,735 billion, about one-fifth that of its neighbour the Dragon.
Even militarily, the imbalance in Beijing’s favour is considerable. The Bhāratīya Saśastra Sēnāēṃ (Devanagari: भारतीय सशस्त्र सेनाएं) – Indian Armed Forces in English – are the armed forces of India. With 1,455,550 men on active duty and 3,681,950 reservists, they constitute the 4th largest army in the world (data from the World Population Review). It is followed by China, in fifth place, but second in military spending, after the United States. The Dragon also enjoys an immense advantage in terms of technology and modernisation of armaments.
In an attempt to close this gap, India has become the second largest arms importer in the world: between 2016 and 2020, it accounted for 9.5% of foreign purchases of military equipment globally. Five-decade-old aircraft – such as the MiG-21 shot down by Pakistan in 2019 – are still in service in Delhi’s air force, and dependence on other countries will weigh more heavily as supply chains deteriorate and demand explodes, which will significantly lengthen delivery times. For its part, the Chinese Air Force deploys the second largest military fleet on the planet and is making great strides towards an indigenous aerospace industry.
The military confrontation between India and China is far from virtual. Along the approximately 3,500 kilometres of common border, a frozen war on the Himalayan glaciers is always on the verge of erupting. Beijing deploys around 120,000 troops along the border, six times as many as it had at its disposal a few years ago. An impressive number, given the orography of the place. And here the People’s Republic of China enjoys an immense infrastructural advantage. As of 2017, Beijing has built or modernised at least 37 airports and heliports between Tibet and Xinjiang, at least 22 of which have clear military functions. As of 2020, Beijing has especially strengthened infrastructure closer to the border in extreme weather conditions. Many of their airports exceed 3,000 metres in altitude. In the event of a conflict, since there would be no ground for armoured or mechanised units on the Himalayan peaks, control of the sky would be decisive.
The current explosive situation follows four decades of détente. Then, agreements were signed that still curb the chances of escalation after the 1962 war between China and India over the disputed Aksai Chin region. Although China won the war, Beijing’s troops retreated north of the McMahon Line. The border between the two Asian giants was established on the Line of Actual Control (LAC). In 2017, tensions flared up again in Doklam and multiplied from there until the clashes in the Galwann Valley in 2020, where Chinese and Indian soldiers faced each other again in the Himalayan ices, with the latter having the worst of it and leaving at least 20 dead on the field, abandoning strips of territory to Chinese control.
There are three areas of friction on the border: Ladakh, Doklam (Indian state of Sikkim) and Arunachal Pradesh. The former, where the Galwan valley is located, is the most important in strategic terms. Here, the area under Indian control is wedged between the Chinese Aksai Chin to the east and Pakistan to the north and west, and is contiguous with Indian Kashmir, where the 95% Muslim population has always been intolerant of the central government. Modi’s Indian executive in Delhi therefore fears the welding of interests between China and Pakistan, already united by very strong trade ties, which could become a strategic stranglehold on its northern territories.
Cover image: Shashank Hudkar, Unsplash