What do Indians really think about China? It’s a question that has been on many minds over the past week, with the visit to India of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.
The media headlines about a new opinion poll suggest that the answer is that most Indians see China as a security challenge, indeed as a threat. While that is an accurate description of one part of the poll, it is not the whole story.
As the designer and author of the poll study, I would like to set the record straight.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
There is a fascinating tension or, as a Hindu might put it, a duality to how Indians see China. While 83 percent of respondents to the poll see their neighbor as a security threat, it is also notable that 63 percent want India-China ties to improve, and only 9 percent think that relationship is already too close.
Moreover, Indians feel slightly more warmly towards the people of China than they do about certain other Asian countries, including Indonesia, South Korea and Vietnam.
The 2013 India Poll, prepared by the Lowy Institute for International Policy in partnership with the Australia India Institute, involved face-to-face interviews with a carefully selected representative sample of 1233 Indians, from all sectors of society. The sample size is obviously small relative to India’s enormous population, hence an acknowledged statistical margin of error of 3.6 percent. Even allowing for this, some of the results are striking.
The survey examined attitudes to a whole host of issues, from transnational security challenges to domestic leadership, from the economy to corruption, any one of which merits further analysis. But some of its most illuminating findings relate to what Indians think about other countries, especially China, Pakistan and the United States.
The bad news for India-China relations is that 83 percent of Indians see China as some kind of threat to their country’s security over the next ten years. And 60 percent see China as a major threat. It is worth noting that these attitudes were recorded in late 2012, well before the recent flare-up of border tensions.
These data do not, as one editorial implies, have a “propaganda angle”. Quite the contrary. It is a reflection of Indian anxiety and it amounts to hard evidence that such threat perceptions are not exclusively held by India’s strategic elite, but rather by a large cross-section of society. This means that China’s public diplomacy challenge in dealing with India is of Himalayan proportions, and will not be resolved by one high-level visit, however successful.
And large majorities of poll respondents also indicate that their reasons for this mistrust do in fact include the list of issues often cited by India’s strategic experts, such as China’s possession of nuclear weapons, the border dispute, China’s activities in the Indian Ocean region, and the military and other support China gives Pakistan. In other words, Beijing cannot hope to change Indian popular mistrust without substantively addressing at least some of these issues.
But the poll contains good news, too, for the prospect of coexistence and even cooperation between Asia’s rising giants.