China is the world’s most populous country — but it won’t be for long. India is expected to overtake China in 2023 at the top of the list of the world’s most populated countries, according to a newly released forecast by the United Nations (UN).
But China’s aging and soon-to-be shrinking population is not the only important demographic trend in the coming decades. The world’s fastest-growing region is sub-Saharan Africa. Its surging population can provide a demographic dividend or severely strain governmental and natural resources, entrenching poverty, and fueling conflict.
How Many People Are In the World?
The world population in 2022 is an estimated 7.95 billion, according to the UN. And roughly thirty-six percent of the world’s inhabitants reside in the two most populous countries, China and India. Asia is the world’s most populous continent by far. Ten of the world’s twenty most populated countries are in Asia, which is home to over fifty percent of mankind.
Demographics and the China-India Rivalry
India’s population growth rate is three times faster than that of China. And while India’s fertility rate of 2.1 percent is right at replacement level — the birth rate required for a population to remain the same over a generation — China’s is below replacement, at 1.7 percent. In the coming decades, China’s population will not only get older, but it will also shrink. China’s population in 2050 is projected to fall to 1.36 billion, while India’s is forecast to rise to 1.66 billion.
As the rivalry between these two Asian giants grows, demography could shape the balance of power between the two countries. But a bigger population doesn’t necessarily mean that a country is stronger.
Militarily, China is seeking a leaner, more effective fighting force, bolstered by electronic warfare and other advanced technologies. In recent clashes with India, this technological superiority has given China the edge. India also faces a future in which jobs growth trails behind population growth. Its manufacturing industry is lackluster compared to China and even many smaller southeast Asian countries.
China’s future also isn’t so rosy. As growth slows and its population ages, China could fail to make the leap to a high-income country and get stuck in what’s called the “middle-income trap.” Still, from the 1980s until recently, China was able to leverage earlier demographic booms and develop an enormous, cheap labor force to serve as the ‘factory of the world.” As a result of these gains, China’s per capita income today is over $12,500, compared to just under $2,300 for India.
World’s Highest Fertility Rates Drive Africa Population Surge
Over the course of this century, the world’s demographic profile is expected to change dramatically, as demonstrated in UN projections for 2050, and 2100.
Most regions are witnessing declines in fertility rates and increases in longevity. Fertility rates are below the replacement level in 83 countries.
But as populations in developed countries age, Africa will see a continued surge in its young population. Of the twenty-five countries with the highest fertility rates, twenty-four are in Africa. Niger has the world’s highest fertility rate at 6.6 percent, followed by Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo at 5.7 and 5.5 percent respectively.
Currently, only one African country — Nigeria — ranks among the world’s ten most populous countries. In 2050, that number will grow to three with DRC and Ethiopia joining their ranks. And in 2100, five of the world’s ten most populous countries are projected to be African, with Uganda and Tanzania joining the club.
The World’s Most Populated Countries
Here are the world’s most populous countries in 2022, according to the United Nations: