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[Speaking Out] Will India Become the World's Next Big Power?

India has become a pillar of the global economy through incredible economic growth, and its rise could help rein in Chinese expansionism, argues the author.



(From left) Indian Minister of External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, Defense Minister Rajnath Singh, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi, and Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada at the prime minister's official residence on September 9, 2022. (© Sankei by Yasuhiro Yajima)

The world's largest democracy, India, recently became the world's fifth-largest economy, surpassing Britain. Now India is about to overtake China in population size. It will be for the first time in at least three centuries that China ceases to be the world's most-populous nation.

India's economy is smaller than China's but is growing faster. Today, India is the world's fastest-growing important economy, according to the World Bank. India is forecast to account for 12.9% of all global growth over the next five years, which is more than America's share.

China, by contrast, is running into long-term constraints, including a shrinking and rapidly aging population, slowing growth in productivity, and a high debt level. China's demographic crisis is deepening even as it remains a middle-income, developing country, as measured by workers' average incomes.

China's demographic crisis, which threatens its status as the world's factory floor, could be compared to the one that stalled Japan's economic boom in the 1990s. But with Chinese households living on much lower incomes on average than in Japan, China will find it hard to provide a safety net for its aging population.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Quad leaders meet in Tokyo on May 24, 2022.

Youths Propelling Economic Growth

Against this backdrop, Chinese President Xi Jinping seems to be in a hurry to achieve what he calls the "Chinese dream," or China's global preeminence. Believing that China has a narrow window of strategic opportunity to modify the international order in its favor, Xi has shown an increasing appetite for taking major risks.

India, however, does not need to hurry. With a median age of 28.4, India is one of the world's youngest countries. India's youthful population is propelling rapid economic growth, contributing to a consumption boom, and driving innovation, as highlighted by the development of a world-class information economy.

India has about 600 million more people than Europe, which is divided into 44 countries. Despite its immense cultural and ethnic diversity, India is the first developing economy that, from the beginning, has strived to modernize and prosper through a democratic system. And, unlike China, India is not seen as hungry for the land and resources of others, with India's rise not accompanied by greater assertiveness.

Indian and Japanese commanders shake hands in front of Indian Air Force Su-30MKI fighter jets. The jets flew to Japan for the first time on January 10, 2023. JASDF Hyakuri Base in Ibaraki Prefecture (© Sankei by Ataru Haruna)

Reining in Chinese Expansionism

Meanwhile, military reasons explain why China has sought to achieve its objectives by stealth, deception, and surprise than by direct combat. Its expansionism in the South China Sea, for example, has happened without it firing a single shot. In contrast to India's all-volunteer military, the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) largely relies on conscripts who ostensibly "volunteer" for two years of service after crossing the age of 18. Contrary to conventional wisdom, India — with the world's most-experienced military in hybrid mountain warfare — has an edge over China in the high-altitude Himalayan environment, according to two American studies.

India's incredible economic growth has made it a crucial pillar of the global economy. But for this century to belong to India, it must become a manufacturing powerhouse by taking advantage of its comparatively lower labor costs and Western companies' efforts to slowly shift production away from China. India's accelerated rise could help rein in Chinese expansionism.


(A version of this article was first published by the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals, Speaking Out #1033 in English and in Japanese on April 24, 2023.)

Author: Brahma Chellaney
Brahma Chellaney is a professor of strategic studies at the Center for Policy Research, New Delhi.

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