India's Potential to Outrank China as a Global Superpower

India has recently surpassed China, according to the United Nations. But can India also rival its neighbor as a global superpower?
Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi and President of China Xi Jinping. (GETTY IMAGES via BBC INDONESIA)
Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi and President of China Xi Jinping. (GETTY IMAGES via BBC INDONESIA)

In the realm of global population, India has recently surpassed China, according to the United Nations. But can India also rival its neighbor as a global superpower? Experts say that while China still maintains the upper hand in terms of economy, geopolitical influence, and military strength, the tide is turning.

According to Michael Spence, the 2001 Nobel laureate in economics and dean of Stanford University, India's momentum has arrived. "India will catch up with China," he says. "China's economy will slow down, whereas India's will not." However, there are several challenges ahead.

China boasts the second-largest economy in the world, nearly five times the size of India's, which ranks fifth. With a relatively small middle class, India requires significant investment in education, quality of life, gender equality, and economic reforms to achieve a "China-like" boom. Furthermore, becoming a global superpower entails more than just having a large population and a robust economy.

It also depends on geopolitical and military strength, areas where India still lags behind.

Soft power also plays a crucial role. India's Bollywood film industry has been highly effective in promoting the country internationally. Indian films have broken records on platforms like Netflix. However, there is also the phenomenon known as "Chinawood": China's rapidly growing film industry. Chinawood even briefly surpassed Hollywood as the highest-grossing box office worldwide in 2020 and repeated the feat in 2021.

The Economic Momentum of India
Population Changes in China and India

Population Changes in India and China (BBC Indonesia)
Population Changes in India and China (BBC Indonesia)

Currently, India sees the birth of around 86,000 babies every day, surpassing China's 49,400 daily births. With low birth rates, China's population is shrinking and is projected to be less than one billion by the end of this century. In contrast, the United Nations predicts that India's population will continue to grow until 2064, reaching 1.7 billion from the current 1.4 billion.

This presents India with a "demographic dividend" - a term referring to rapid economic growth resulting from an increased working-age population. "The dividend from incremental reforms in the 1990s in India is paying off now. But how much of its workforce is educated, healthy, skilled, and contributing to the economy?" explains Professor Mark Frazier, director of the India China Institute at the New School in New York. Despite attracting major multinational corporations like Apple and Foxconn in recent months, India's internal bureaucracy and the instability caused by frequent legislative changes often raise concerns among international investors. "That's very 19th-century thinking, that the larger the population of a country, the more powerful it becomes," adds Frazier. He emphasizes that there are many other factors at play.

Currently, only half of India's working-age population (14-64 years) is employed or actively seeking employment, according to the World Bank. For women of working age, the figure is even lower, at only 25 percent in India, compared to 60 percent in China and 52 percent in the European Union. China's economy has surged ahead of other countries after undergoing significant reforms in the 1980s and 1990s. However, a combination of the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, an aging population, and geopolitical tensions with Western countries has impacted the nation. India's GDP is currently growing faster than China's, and the International Monetary Fund predicts that this growth will continue. But does China's slower GDP growth mean it is falling behind? 

Comparison of China and India's Armed Forces. Source: The Military Balance 2023, IISS (BBC Indonesia)
Comparison of China and India's Armed Forces. Source: The Military Balance 2023, IISS (BBC Indonesia)

If China continues to grow at a rate of 4 or 5 percent until 2030, it would still be considered a remarkable achievement. Some individuals argue that for a country that has been accustomed to growth rates of 8-9 percent, a slower growth rate might indicate falling behind. However, sustaining a 4-5 percent growth rate for such a massive economy like China's would still contribute significantly to its overall development and global influence.

On the other hand, India's economy has been gaining momentum in recent years. It has implemented economic reforms and attracted foreign investments, particularly in sectors like technology, manufacturing, and renewable energy. Additionally, India's young and growing population provides a potential workforce and consumer market, which can contribute to its economic growth. The International Monetary Fund predicts that India's GDP growth will continue to outpace China's in the coming years.

Geopolitically, both India and China have their strengths and challenges. China has established itself as a dominant player in global affairs, with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) expanding its influence across regions. It has also invested heavily in its military capabilities, becoming a significant regional and global power. On the other hand, India has been strengthening its diplomatic ties and participating actively in international forums. It has also modernized its military and expanded its defense partnerships. However, China's military prowess and geopolitical influence still surpass India's at present.

Soft power, including cultural influence and international perception, is another aspect to consider. India has made significant strides in this area, with its rich cultural heritage, diverse film industry, and global diaspora. Bollywood films have gained popularity worldwide, contributing to India's soft power projection. China, with its deep-rooted cultural heritage, has also been investing in cultural diplomacy and expanding its soft power through avenues like cinema, music, and Confucius Institutes.

In conclusion, while India has the potential to catch up with China as a global superpower, it still faces significant challenges in terms of economic reforms, infrastructure development, gender equality, and geopolitical influence. China's established position as the second-largest economy and its military might give it an advantage. However, India's growing economy, young population, and soft power assets provide a solid foundation for its aspirations. The dynamics between the two countries will continue to evolve, and future developments will shape their trajectories on the global stage.

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