New UN Population Projections Have India Outpacing China

International   |   Susan Yoshihara   |   Sep 2, 2011   |   11:27AM   |   Washington, DC

New York, NY (LifeNews/CFAM) — The UN’s new fertility forecasts could have significant implications for predicting which nations will wield global power in the 21st century, especially predictions about the coming power shift in Asia where Indians will outnumber Chinese by 2025. 

For years UN population experts have said that low fertility and aging societies like China and Europe will have to curtail economic and military power. With higher fertility rates and younger work forces, developing countries like India would gain relative influence in world affairs.

But now, UN demographers have reversed themselves, projecting that all nations will converge by 2100 at a rate of 2.1 children per woman, just enough to replace their parents, but not more. The probabilistic model that UN statisticians used to make these new predictions is severely flawed and experts have rightly criticized it. But the fallout from the new forecast could be significant nonetheless.

Demographic projections matter because, despite their uncertainties, they drive strategic plans. Governments use them to guide health care and family policies, corporations use them to decide where to invest, and security analysts use them to anticipate coming challenges and to plan responses.

The security community’s consensus on the coming China-India power shift makes the UN’s new demographic data all the more puzzling. If true, the new UN projections would call into question the relative size of India’s demographic advantage, the very factor upon which other political and economic advantages depend.

A recent RAND study concluded that India’s vibrant democracy is more likely to harness key components of national competition better than China’s authoritarian regime. Among the four factors—demographics, macroeconomics, science and technology, and defense spending—India currently only has the advantage in the first category, population.

Of the four RAND factors, only population is fixed. Projecting the future youth cohort does not require forecasts but only census data: All of the young people who will be manning the workforce or military units in 2025 have already been born.

The last three factors depend upon New Delhi’s ability to harness its demographic advantage. Heritage Foundation’s Lisa Curtis says, “The more attention Indian officials pay now to coming up with solutions that address these socio-economic challenges, the better poised India will be to ensure its growing working-age population will translate into more leverage and influence on the international stage — and within the Asian power balance.”

Thirty years ago, China was hampered by a backward technological and industrial base, compounded by the ravages of the Cultural Revolution. Yet China’s economic reforms lifted millions out of poverty while setting the stage for the economic boom that continues today. That economic growth depended in large part on Beijing’s ability to tap into its massive reservoir of cheap labor to sustain its manufacturing prowess. In time, India too could follow in China’s footsteps.

But what if India’s coming demographic boom is a bust? And what if China’s apparently terminal demographic decline is not so severe?

India           Medium         Constant

2050 1 692 008 2 019 849
2100 1 550 899 3 319 977



2050 1 295 604 1 303 424
2100 941 042 828 495
Table 1. Total Population, India and China in 2050 and 2100 (thousands). Medium Variant and Constant Fertility Projections.
Source: United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2011), World Population Prospects: The 2010 Revision, CD-ROM Edition.

If India’s fertility remains constant at 2.73 and China’s at 1.64, India will have 2 billion people in 2050, or 716 million more people than China’s 1.3 billion. By 2100, India will have 3.3 billion to China’s 828 million, a tremendous advantage of 2.5 billion more people.

But if the UN’s new projections are to be believed, India would have 1.69 billion people in 2050, only 396 million more than China’s 1.3 billion.  By 2100, India will have just 1.55 billion, only 610 million more than China’s 941 million.

The new estimate would see India’s demographic advantage slashed by 1.9 billion people by 2100. This would surely come as a shock to defense planners whose jobs are to plan for New Delhi’s future strategic posture.

How each country will digest the UN’s controversial new projections is obviously unknowable. But it is worth speculating about how the great powers will respond to the revisionist figures.

Take China for example.  Buoyed by the optimistic fertility estimates and the prospects of a demographic soft landing, a confident China may be more inclined to fulfill its duties as a responsible stakeholder in the international system.  However, confidence may also stimulate an ambitious foreign policy that could prove destabilizing to the international order.

On the other hand, Beijing may be unmoved by the upbeat forecasts. Chinese strategists already evince the belief that an anemic China would emerge from its long period of state-enforced fertility decline. Faced with unfavorable long term trends, policymakers may be inclined to resolve disputes preemptively before manpower constraints narrow China’s strategic options for resolving such issues as reunification with Taiwan. Such strategic preferences clearly have ominous implications for regional security in the next 10 to 20 years.

The bottom line is that expectations matter in international politics. By engaging in a dramatic analytical about face, the UN has done little to alleviate the uncertainty that is inherent to interstate relations. Note: Susan Yoshihara, Ph.D. writes for the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute. This article originally appeared in the pro-life group’s Friday Fax publication and is used with permission.