Flashpoints

What Indians Think About China

The 2013 India Poll confirms that tensions exist, but it also contains some surprises.

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.

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.

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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.

Although the poll suggests that around 95 percent of Indians are strongly attached to their democratic rights, there is also a degree of respect for aspects of China’s growth and development.

Notably, 42 percent of poll respondents think it would be better if India’s government and society “worked more like” those of China. That is a significant result, given that a developed Western democracy, Germany, ranked about the same in terms of this kind of positive Indian sentiment. That said, most Indian poll respondents (78 percent) rank the United States number one in terms of their respect for its type of government and society, followed by Australia, Japan and Singapore. And a large minority, 31 percent, of Indians consider that it would be worse for the people of India if their government and society were more like China’s.

Turning to geopolitics, while 70 percent of poll respondents think China’s aim is to dominate Asia and 65 percent agree that India should work with other countries to limit China’s power, a majority (64 percent) also agree that India and China should cooperate to play a leading role in the world together.

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In other words, some Indians hold these views at the same time. This is not necessarily a contradiction – rather, it reflects the profound dilemmas faced by Indian foreign policy.

It is often claimed that Indians see the Indian Ocean as India’s ocean, and the poll confirms this at one level: 94 percent of respondents want their country to be the most powerful nation in those waters. But there is also some appetite for cooperation: 72 percent see the United States as a good partner for India in the Indian Ocean, while a still-substantial 39 percent see China in a similar light.

Even so, it is clear that China still has a long way to go in allaying popular Indian misgivings. Despite the fact that China has become India’s largest trade partner, and there is an official target to grow this commerce to $100 billion a year, only 31 percent of Indians think China’s rise has been good for their country.

Indians are fairly evenly divided on two crucial matters: while 45 percent think that India’s interests would not be harmed if China gained more power and influence, 41 percent think the opposite. And while 42 percent do not want the United States to give China a greater role in regional affairs, a similar proportion, 40 percent, would like to see America share the stage in this way.

Many Indians, it seems, have an intuitive grasp of the challenges of great-power diplomacy.

Rory Medcalf designed and oversaw India Poll 2013. He is program director for international security at the Lowy Institute, associate director of the Australia India Institute and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Follow him on twitter @Rory_Medcalf