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“Quantity has a quality of its own”
A significant factor in the power of states throughout history has been sheer numbers. Spain was able to control an overseas empire to a significantly greater degree than Portugal thanks in no small part to its larger population. England subsequently rose in power and grew to control an empire of its own aided by a population boom in the 19th century. And the United States supplanted the United Kingdom as the world’s great power as its population vastly outgrew that of its former colonial overlord.
Of course, many factors other than population influence the power of states, including economic productivity and the strength of institutions. But population is a multiplier for those factors, and a country with a large enough population can exercise comparable or greater power than more developed but less populous countries. For a long time, this was the role that Russia played in Europe: less advanced technologically and economically than much of Western Europe, but a great power by sheer force of numbers.
The most important story in geopolitics today is the rise of China (population 1.3B) and its challenge to the supremacy of the United States (population 300M). The rise of China as a peer superpower to the United States is all but accomplished, and it appears that we are returning to a bipolar world, this time characterized by competition by the US and China, just as 1946-1991 was characterized by competition between the US and USSR.
However, if China succeeds in sustaining its growth trajectory economically and militarily, it will grow to overshadow the United States, wielding the same ~5x population advantage over the US that the US now enjoys over its predecessor power, the United Kingdom. This also means that the repressive and authoritarian Chinese model will increasingly prevail over the free democratic model that America has championed.
However, America is not the most populous democracy in the world. That honor belongs to India. India is forecast to surpass China in population in the next decade, and in the next few decades to grow almost 50% more populous than China. India currently punches below its weight on the world stage due to slow economic development: 30 years ago, its GDP per capita was similar to China’s, but is now 5x lower. However, if India were to enter a period of similarly high growth over the next 30 years as China has for the past 30, it would quickly become one of the most powerful countries in the world thanks to the scaling factor of its immense population. Moreover, India’s population is forecast to continue growing quickly, while China’s is forecast to shrink, and that will only compound any advantages that India accumulates.
In a world that is quickly going from unipolar to multipolar, it is worth considering which states will wield influence in the century to come, and on behalf of which values (if any, other than self-interest!) they will wield it. If China rises to heights of power that eclipse the US completely, only India may be strong enough to speak for liberal democracy. It is therefore in the interest of the US and other Western powers to develop closer ties to India and encourage its economic development, so as to nurture a counterweight to the rise of authoritarianism in the 21st century.