India views China, another look

The Lowy Institute of Australia has come out with a poll on Indian views of the world that deserves commendation. For one thing, no one in India bothers to carry out such detailed surveys. It is doubly commendable because it includes both rural and urban populations and asked questions in vernacular languages as well.

Finally, it deserves commendation because 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 both these 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 figure Lowy Institute came up with is quite stunning with 60 per cent of Indians agreeing China is major threat, 22 per cent agreeing it is a minor threat. Only Pakistan scores higher or is even close to this in magnitude. I have often warned Chinese that there past few years of erratic behaviour meant Indians were replacing Pakistan with their country as Enemy Number One.

Have Indians always seen China this way? I don’t think so. A quick look at previous surveys would seem to support this. 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% (though this rose to 40% among urbanites) vs 23%. A Chicago Council of Foreign Relations-Asia Society poll in 2006 said 43% 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 overwhelming voted in favour of China as a positive global influence: 46 to 15%. 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. Sadly, Lowy has yet to give the breakdowns of the numbers in terms of urban/rural or regions.

The only positive of the Lowy poll is the fact 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 CSIS 2009 survey reflects a similar duality: Indians voted for China as the greatest threat to and greatest force in favour of peace and stability in the next 10 years.

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