NEW DELHI — Persistently questioned by an Indian journalist over a disputed map, the Chinese ambassador finally lost his temper.
“Shut up,” Ambassador Zhang Yan snapped at the correspondent at an event last month, his undiplomatic tone a reflection of China’s deep discomfort with India’s raucous and often nationalistic media.
The uncomfortable questions arose from a map issued by a private Chinese company showing China’s long-standing claims to a huge swath of Indian territory.
But the clash also revealed a much more fundamental antipathy between the cultures and political systems of the world’s two largest nations, whose relations have hit rough weather in the past six years, despite booming trade ties.
That deterioration is reflected in, and magnified by, growing popular distrust between Indians and Chinese, a trend that in turn undermines efforts to settle the countries’ long-running border dispute and threatens to propel an arms race between the nuclear-armed Asian giants, which fought a brief border war in 1962.
Indeed, Indians’ distrust of the Chinese and the Chinese dislike of the Indians appear to be growing as the Asian nations emerge and compete as global powers, experts say.
Surveys conducted by the Pew Global Attitudes Project show that just 25 percent of Indians had a favorable or somewhat favorable view of China in 2011, compared with 34 percent in 2010, albeit among a different population sample, and 57 percent in 2005. Only Turkey recorded a lower score among the 22 nations surveyed.
“There is a clear consensus that China’s military rise is not in India’s interests and that China’s growing economic power is also not in India’s interests,” said Pew’s Richard Wike.
To make matters worse, China’s perceived reluctance to recognize the rise of India “is something that really touched a raw nerve among the Indian elite and middle classes,” said Harsh Pant, an Asian security expert at the Department of Defense Studies at King’s College in London.
It flows both ways. Just 27 percent of Chinese surveyed by Pew had a favorable or somewhat favorable view of India in 2011, compared with 32 percent in 2010.
Simon Shen, an associate professor at the Hong Kong Institute of Education and former visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, carried out a study of online comments from Chinese netizens and found that the vast majority were “filled with hostility and contempt for India.”
“In their minds, India is stereotyped by terms such as ‘curry,’ ‘dirty’ and ‘poor,’ and these images are almost always connected,” Shen writes in a research paper that will be published in China Quarterly next year.
This in turn means India’s rise is uncomfortable for many Chinese, who consider their neighbors racially, economically, militarily and culturally inferior.
Sino-Indian relations started to fray after the United States and India drew closer and ultimately signed a civil nuclear cooperation deal in 2008.
Feeling threatened, the Chinese government drew even closer to Pakistan, its long-standing ally and India’s arch-rival.
A slew of largely hostile media reports have helped fuel suspicions, reflecting increasingly hawkish views in both countries’ establishments and helping to reinforce those views among the public. They have also provided political cover for significant new military spending.
India has formed two new divisions, comprising more than 36,000 troops, to defend its northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, territory the Chinese invaded in 1962 and still claim sovereignty over as “Southern Tibet.” For the first time, India is also planning to station BrahMos cruise missiles in Arunachal.
These were decisions made because of what India sees as a significant Chinese “buildup” on the other side of the border but pushed through on a fast track, partly in response to frenzied Indian media coverage of the threat from China and the effect this was having on public opinion.
In what Indians saw as a puzzlingly provocative move, Beijing also began issuing special stapled visas, instead of standard visas, for Kashmiri Indians, underlining its refusal to recognize Indian sovereignty over the territory, which is also claimed by Pakistan.
At the same time, China’s rapid development of road and rail links in Tibet up to the Indian border, its investments in major infrastructure projects in many of India’s South Asian neighbors, and reports of thousands of Chinese troops stationed in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir have contributed to a sense of unease here.
But the Indian media also have played a major role in fueling that unease among the elite and middle classes, in an onslaught that Mohan Guruswamy, chairman of the Center for Policy Alternatives in New Delhi, says is often jingoistic, ignorant and ill-informed.
That has made it harder for the Indian government to resolve disputes with China quietly behind the scenes and has restricted public debate, he said.
“It is difficult today to take a rational, sensible position on China without being labeled a panda-hugger,” said Guruswamy, who is also a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
India’s distrust of the Chinese government dates to the 1962 border war, which comprehensively destroyed the idea of “Hindi-Chini bhai bhai” (the Indians and Chinese are brothers), an Indian foreign policy catchphrase in the 1950s. The border dispute, over some 50,000 square miles of territory, still looks as intractable as ever.
Both countries are modernizing their armed forces: India announced an 11.6 percent increase in defense spending in its last budget, while China hiked defense spending by 12.7 percent.
Some of the popular distrust is generated by their respective governments’ policy and propaganda. The Chinese leadership, for example, is thought to track Internet sentiment closely and may at times find the nationalist card a tempting one to play.
Shen concedes his findings could magnify and distort the views of ordinary Chinese, partly because extreme nationalism is one of the few avenues open for a Chinese citizen to criticize the Communist Party. But in contrast to views about the United States and Japan, he found negative views of India to be remarkably homogenous on liberal and nationalist discussion forums.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s state visit to India late last year received glowing coverage in the state media, and in normal times ,there is little pressure on the Chinese government to take a harder line with India.
Shen said public opinion could play a more important and divisive role when disputes arise. The fact that India is perceived as “both culturally and socially inferior to China” means that any perceived defeat by India would involve a particularly embarrassing loss of face for the Chinese government. That in turn means Beijing is much less likely to make concessions toward New Delhi than toward Washington or Tokyo.
Staff researcher Zhang Jie in Beijing contributed to this report.