India’s Views on China: Another Look

The Lowy Institute of Australia has come out with a poll on Indian views of the world that deserves commendation for myriad reasons. For one, no one in India bothers to carry out such detailed surveys. It includes both rural and urban populations, and asked questions in vernacular languages. And, it asked an upfront question that every survey on Indian attitudes towards China avoids asking: “Do you consider China to be a security threat?” Most surveys ask, “Do you approve of China?” or, “Do you think China’s rise is good for your country?” But these two questions would elicit a different set of responses.

For example, the latest BBC Globescan survey of global opinions shows that world opinion on India is now more negative than positive. But this is probably about corruption, a slowing economy and the anti-rape protests. However, I suspect almost no one would see India as a threat.

The figures Lowy Institute came up with are quite stunning, with 60 percent of Indians agreeing China is a major threat, and 22 percent agreeing it is a minor threat. Only Pakistan scores higher or is even close to this in magnitude. I have often warned Chinese that the past few years of erratic behavior has led to their country stealing Pakistan’s title as India’s Enemy Number One.

Have Indians always seen China this way? A quick look at previous surveys says no. A 2012 Pew Survey asked Indians if they saw their relations with China as one of conflict or cooperation and the answer was dead even: 24 percent for conflict (though this rose to 40 percent among urbanites) versus 23 percent for cooperation. A Chicago Council of Foreign Relations-Asia Society poll in 2006 said 43 percent of Indians saw the rise of China as a “critical” threat to the vital interests of their country.

Most striking was a BBC Globescan 2006 report where Indians overwhelmingly voted in favor of China as a positive global influence, 46 percent to 15 percent. Can’t see that happening again in a while.

If other polls confirm the Lowy numbers, it would mark a significant increase in anti-China sentiment in India. However, Lowy has yet to give the breakdowns of the numbers in terms of urban/rural or regions.

Positively, about two-thirds of Indians said they hoped to improve ties with China in the future. Which makes sense: if the deterioration in China’s image has taken place since 2008, it would not be firmly embedded in the public conscience and would be reversible given the right policies. A 2009 CSIS survey reflects a similar duality: Indians voted for China both as the greatest threat to and greatest force in favor of peace and stability in the next decade.

Copyright 2013 the Hindustan Times.

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