By Bruce Stokes, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Bruce Stokes is the director of global economic attitudes at the Pew Research Center. The views expressed are the writer’s own.
During the Cold War, the Indian government attempted to position itself between Moscow and Washington by claiming leadership of the Non-Aligned Movement. As Indians head to the polls over the next six weeks, their country again finds itself in a world with two preeminent powers: this time, China and the United States.
And the Indian public is fairly clear where its sympathies lie: with America. Of course, how such attitudes will influence the views of the next Indian government remains to be seen. But, for now at least, there appears to be no evidence of broad anti-Americanism on the sub-continent.
This might come as a surprise to some. After all, the favorable views of the United States came despite the fact that the Pew Research Center survey measuring sentiment was conducted in India in the immediate aftermath of the controversial December 2013 arrest and strip-search of India’s female deputy consul general in New York on charges of visa fraud. Yet by more than three-to-one (56 percent to 15 percent), Indians express a favorable rather than unfavorable view of the United States.
At the same time, Indians were somewhat skeptical about their massive neighbor China, a country that more than half of Indians view as a major threat to the country. Roughly a third of the public has a favorable view of Beijing, with only 13 percent holding a very favorable opinion. In contrast, about four-in-ten have an unfavorable opinion of the People’s Republic, including 22 percent who said they held a very unfavorable opinion.
Indians of all backgrounds have a more favorable view of the United States than of China, with more than half of both men and women saying they saw America in a positive light compared with around a third who see China that way. In addition, there was no generation gap with regard to views on the U.S. and on China – all age groups favored America. Almost three quarters of Indians with some college education or more have a positive view of Uncle Sam, compared with about four-in-ten with at least some college who see China in that light. Similarly, nearly two-thirds of high-income Indians favor the United States compared with about one-third who had a positive opinion of China.
Meanwhile, Indians are more than twice as likely to see America as a partner (36 percent) than as an enemy (16 percent), while more than a third (37 percent) of the Indian public considers China to be an enemy.
So what is behind the skepticism toward China? The distrust may have its roots in past military confrontations. Almost two-thirds of the Indian public view China’s growing military power as a bad thing for India, while just 19 percent said Beijing’s increasing military might is good for India.
In addition, India has long had border disputes with China. A war was fought along their mutual frontier in 1962. And, in recent years, there have been confrontations along the Chinese border with Jammu and Kashmir as well as in Arunachal Pradesh, an Indian state that China claims as part of Tibet. So it comes as little surprise that seven-in-ten Indians say territorial disputes between India and China are a problem for the country, including 45 percent who say they are a very big problem.
Overall, by nearly four-to-one, Indians surveyed said they see the United States today as the world’s leading economic power rather than China. However, looking to the future, a third of Indians said China has already or will eventually replace the United States as the world’s leading superpower. Yet Indians are less likely than publics in many countries to see China’s rising hegemony as inevitable, according to a separate Pew Research Center survey in spring 2013.
Holding the opinions they do about China and the United States, it may come as no surprise that 42 percent of Indians say it is more important to have strong ties with Washington than with Beijing – only 9 percent hold the view that it would be better to have a closer relationship with China.
That said, foreign affairs are unlikely to be on the minds of most Indian voters when they go to the polls. The economy, perceptions of political dysfunction and corruption, and the desire for a change in leadership are their primary concerns, according to the Pew Research survey. But whoever becomes prime minister will govern a people who are far more disposed toward a positive relationship with Washington than toward Beijing.