Indian public opinion and China

A recent India Today Mood of the Nation poll suggests a strong turn against China in Indian public opinion:

“This month, an overwhelming 84 per cent of MOTN respondents believed Xi Jinping has betrayed Modi. Ninety one per cent believe that the government’s banning of Chinese apps and denying contracts to Chinese companies was the right approach to countering Chinese aggression; and 67 per cent say they are ready to pay more for goods not made in China. The distrust of China has never been this high. Even in the first MOTN, after the 72-day Doklam stand-off between India and China in 2017, 42 per cent of the respondents in the January 2018 poll believed that relations with China had improved.”

What do we know about Indian public opinion toward China over time? In this post I examine two sets of data to lay out some historical background.

First we have a Cold War series, from Indian Institute of Public Opinion surveys of urban India (covering 1957-1988). The IIOPO ran regular surveys in urban India, many of which centered on foreign affairs. You can find an initial paper using these data here, which was supposed to be revised his spring but has languished for covid-19 reasons, with Aidan Milliff (the lead author and driving force) and Vipin Narang. An exceptional team of RA’s – Noa Levin, A’ndre Gonawela, and Rashmi Muraleedhar – have created a dataset of all of the foreign policy questions that we will eventually make publicly available. There are huge caveats with the data (sampling above all: urban, heavily educated and literate) so take with grains of salt.

This is the time trend in net favorability of China; we see exceptionally low net favorability for China in the 1960s that took decades to improve:

These are fascinating results of a survey specifically on China in August 1962, in the run-up to the 1962 war:

General questions on China 1973:

1978 on the China border dispute:

1982 on China border dispute:

We can then examine recent trends. Below are figures from Gallup World Poll in India from 2006-2019. This is just one of a large number of quality polls, but useful for its regular time series.

First we see a steady increase in recent years in Disapproval of China’s Leadership.

We see a sharp decrease in Don’t Know, suggesting a greater proportion of the population has an opinion on the matter:

Approval remains fairly steady, so net unfavorable has gone way up.

These aren’t outliers – in the 2014 Pew survey, for instance, China gets poor marks (it wasn’t asked about in the 2019 survey unfortunately):

I’m not an India-China scholar (check out the work of Srinath Raghavan, Tanvi Madan, John Garver, Taylor Fravel, and various others). I have generalized extreme skepticism of government-friendly claims by governments and government-friendly media, but otherwise don’t have expertise on what very precisely has gone down in recent months.

More broadly, though, what might we say has and hasn’t changed as a result of the still-unfolding China crisis? I’ve kept my opinion on one thing and changed it on another. Continuity first – this all reinforces my not-overly-effusive assessment from two years ago:

“India is a hard-pressed power, facing deep domestic challenges and tightly constrained by powerful adversaries on its borders . . .  India is in many ways now a defensive power in its own region, facing a resolute and risk-tolerant Pakistan Army to its west and, to its north, a truly formidable China that is aligned with Pakistan and expanding its influence throughout the region”

The issues I identified in that piece – guns vs. butter trade-offs in the face of a slowing economy, the rise of China, challenges of reaching beyond the region in a serious way, domestic instability fueled by the government’s political project (this even more so in the last year), and the persistence of Pakistan as a problem for Indian foreign policy are all very much still recurring themes in 2020.

But I am changing on mind on both the general place of foreign policy in India’s domestic politics and, potentially, China’s place within that. The data back in 2009 was pretty clear that most of the Indian public, most of the time, was not very focused on foreign policy (which is not say it wasn’t important in particular elections or via public pressure in some crises). But it’s become politicized as part of electoral campaigning under Modi, and in general there is greater access to information (social media, cell phones, rising literacy, urbanization, etc). So we might be seeing a change in the electorate, or at least party strategy, in general when it comes to foreign policy.

If there was a foreign policy issue with potential domestic salience, Narang and I argued in 2018 that it is Pakistan, because of its deep embeddedness in a key domestic political cleavage within India. As we saw in 2019’s general election campaign, the BJP linked Pakistan to Muslims and allegedly anti-national elements, while using the Balakot air strike to bolster perceptions of toughness and resolve (leaving aside the actual truth of what happened at Balakot, whether an F-16 actually went down, etc: see above my generalized skepticism of all happy claims from authorities/friends of authorities). This has been less successful in state elections but remains in the BJP’s quiver.

It’s not yet clear that China will rival Pakistan as a domestic issue (it doesn’t tap into the same cleavages in the same way, for instance), but the opinion data is certainly showing a clear shift that *may* have future implications for the domestic politics of Indian foreign policy. This is something to look out for, especially when you think about how domestic politics influenced Nehru’s constraints from 1959 until the 1962 war.

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