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What Indians think about China, and the border clashes

How will the Modi government respond? Public opinion may hamper the government’s moves to play down the tensions after the latest skirmish.

Indians protest a December confrontation with China's troops along the border in the Tawang district, in Mumbai on Dec. 13. (Rafiq Maqbool/AP)

Indian and Chinese troops clashed this month at Tawang, a long-disputed territory east of Bhutan. The skirmish injured dozens of soldiers on both sides — the first major border incident since 2020, when a brawl in the Galwan valley killed 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese soldiers.

Many experts believe that even low-level conflict between nuclear-armed adversaries, like these small clashes in high and remote mountain terrain, heightens risks of conventional and nuclear escalation. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government appears to maintain a relatively optimistic outlook, modestly playing down the Tawang incident. This raises the question of how India will respond to rising tensions with China.

What do Indians think? Public opinion will probably factor into how India’s government responds to these tensions. Our new research analyzes 60 years of data on Indian public opinion about China. The patterns we identify in Indian citizens’ views of China provide insights into the possible foreign policy constraints the Modi government may face.

Foreign policy is not below the radar

Conventional wisdom might suggest that a minority of Indian voters — similar to trends among U.S. voters — hold meaningful, coherent views on foreign policy. In fact, foreign policy has been largely absent from electoral campaigns in India. Relations with Pakistan are the main foreign policy issue that regularly comes up in elections.

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Our research found evidence that the Indian public has, for decades, paid some attention to the India-China relationship. As relations between the two countries progressed from war in 1962 to rapprochement later in the Cold War, and then a return to increased competition more recently, Indians’ views of China have followed suit. General “approval” of China is higher in India when the bilateral relationship is good, and lower when tensions rise.

About a decade ago, Indians’ mood turned pessimistic. Our analysis of data from Pew Global Attitudes surveys shows that net favorability toward China has been negative since the late 2000s. Despite Modi’s early attempts to sustain positive engagement with China, only about 1 in 4 Indians had favorable views of China by the end of his first term in 2019.

Low approval of China persists in 2022 and may constrain Modi’s response to China’s actions at the disputed border. That’s because a disapproving public could raise the domestic political costs of a response that seems excessively friendly or conciliatory.

But public attention to foreign policy has limits

Consistent with previous research in the United States, our research finds that Indian “public opinion” about foreign policy really reflects the views of a relatively wealthy, educated, urban subset of the Indian public. Across decades of data, poorer and less-educated individuals are less likely to express foreign policy opinions.

And even people who express foreign policy opinions don’t have unlimited attention. We examine attitudes toward China in the narrow windows around historical border clashes in 1986 to 1987, 2013 and again in 2017. We discovered that views on China didn’t seem to change much in response to these nonfatal clashes. Experts at the time agreed that these incidents were serious and dangerous, so why didn’t the Indian public react?

The simplest explanation is that nonfatal border disputes didn’t get enough attention in the media to shift public opinion. India’s paper of record reported on the 1986-1987 border crisis only about once per month, for instance, but mentioned a simultaneous internal security crisis more than every other day. If the media does not extensively report on a clash — or media reports successfully frame it as a triumph for the Indian government — the public is unlikely to focus on the issue.

The Indian public has not historically been swayed by border crises — but that may change. New forms of media and increased media consumption in recent years could boost public awareness of India-China border crises going forward.

Partisans don’t always follow their leaders

Research on wealthier democracies like the United States suggests that many citizens mirror the foreign policy opinions of elites from their political party. In India, the situation appears to be different. Despite assessments of Modi’s agenda-setting power, we find that attitudes toward China don’t vary substantially across different political parties.

Elites in Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have tried to play down the conflict with China, continuing a long-standing effort to avoid serious escalation. BJP voters don’t seem to be listening: Their views of China seem to differ little from the views of supporters of other parties, regardless of elite cues. If anything, Modi’s slowly toughening stance toward China since 2020 suggests that he is responding to border events as well as a worsening public mood.

Will Indians pay closer attention to China policy?

It’s not clear whether India’s public is willing to prioritize foreign policy opinions over pressing domestic issues like the economy. Moreover, the Modi government is nationally dominant and enjoys the backing of much of India’s media. The opposition has criticized Modi’s China policy, but the government faces few serious challengers. These factors seriously limit Modi’s vulnerability.

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Nevertheless, parliamentary elections are only 16 months away. As Modi attempts to de-escalate tensions after the Tawang clash, he may find himself in a delicate situation. Modi faces a public that disapproves of China and, historically, has been skeptical of his China policy. Indians may also be overly optimistic about how India would fare if tensions escalated into full-scale military conflict. Highly visible defeats along the border might be difficult to spin — and thus they increase the political risks these clashes present to the Modi government.

At the same time, many Indian voters have yet to make up their minds about China. That leaves substantial space for opinions to change — or for more people to express their opinions for the first time. If Modi manages to build public support for de-escalation and reconciliation with China, he will probably succeed by shaping the opinions of this yet-unopinionated majority. Just as much as hard facts on the border, the process of shaping opinion and managing information will be crucial for determining how the China issue factors into India’s complicated internal politics.

Aidan Milliff (@amilliff) is a Shorenstein postdoctoral fellow on contemporary Asia at Stanford University’s Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center.

Paul Staniland (@pstanpolitics) is a professor of political science at the University of Chicago and a nonresident scholar in the South Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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