Indians from my parents’ generation have a negative perception of China. This arises from their memories of the 1962 India-China war, which was seen as a betrayal of the spirit of Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai (India and China are brothers) promoted by then-Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Chinese Communist Party chairman Mao Zedong (毛澤東).
While their resentment is understandable, the current generation has adopted stronger negative perceptions of China in the past few years.
It appears that three major events are contributing to this: China’s “perceived” aggressive actions along the three sectors of India-China border; China’s opposition to India’s fight against terrorism at the UN; and China’s opposition to India’s efforts to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG).
Illustration: Mountain People
The younger generation in India has predominantly been Western oriented. This includes their preferences to study in the US or in Europe, consume products, watch movies and TV shows, travel for vacation and find job opportunities.
There were a total of 202,014 students from India studying in the US last year, while there are only 23,000 students from India studying in China. There are 2.65 million Indian residents in the US, and this only accounts for the documented ones.
Indians residing in China number 55,500 and their presence is limited to cosmopolitan cities such as Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou, and 31,569 in Hong Kong.
Such an over-exposure to the Western and predominantly English-speaking countries is one of the main reasons for Indians to hold a generally warm and positive opinion on these countries.
The Lowy Institute’s India Poll 2013 measured the feelings of Indians towards other countries on what resembles a thermometer, showing that Indians feel very warmly toward the US at 62°, cooler toward China at 44° and very chilly toward Pakistan at 20°.
A opinion poll conducted by Pew Global last year found that only 23 percent of Indians view China favorably while 46 percent view China unfavorably, which is part of a larger downward trend.
This percolates to the Chinese influence on the Indian economy which is seen as negative, while the US influence is viewed more positively.
In a poll conducted by the Takshashila Institution in late March and early April, 67 percent of the 1,299 respondents believed that China was responsible for the COVID-19 outbreak. More than 50 percent also said that calling the illness a “Chinese virus” was necessary to make sure the neighboring country did not escape responsibility.
India and China fought a short war at their border in 1962, freezing bilateral relations until 1989. The Special Representatives of India and China on the Boundary Question have since 2003 held 22 rounds of negotiations and are yet to reach a comprehensive solution.
This, complemented by meetings on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between military commanders, has helped maintain a cold peace, even during tense moments like the Doklam crisis in 2017.
The continuing tensions over the border issue, framed by the media as “incursions,” are resonating with the younger generation. The current tensions in all the three sectors of the LAC have been viewed with more concern as India and the world are struggling against COVID-19.
China’s initial objection to designate Masood Azhar, leader of the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), as terrorist by the UN sanctions committee last year resulted in one of India’s leading English-language newspapers raising the question of why China is shielding the JeM and Azhar?
The article, if read between the lines, points to the concern in India about China being a hindrance to India’s fight against terrorism.
Azhar is tied to several terrorist attacks in India starting from an attack on the federal parliament in 2001, attacks in Mumbai in 2008, the attack on the Pathankot Air Force Station in 2016 and attacks in Jammu and Kashmir’s Pulwama District last year. These attacks have caused immense loss of lives and also created immense terror in India.
Beijing opposed India’s attempts to blacklist the JeM in at the UN three times: in 2009, 2016 and 2017. It finally relented and removed its technical hold and allowed the proposal to designate Azhar as a terrorist in May last year. This opposition is seen as support to Pakistan, toward whom Indians already have a chilly relationship.
India has been taking steps to join the NSG since May 2016 after entering into a major civilian nuclear deal with the US in 2005. While China might be correct in its interpretation that India cannot be given an exception to join the NSG without first signing the the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), it betrays its commitment to such a stand by its support to Pakistan.
Pakistan has not signed the NPT, but has been supported by China in its efforts to seek membership in the NSG.
On the opposition to India’s membership effort, the Observer Research Foundation, one of India’s leading strategic think tanks, said “India faces the China wall in its NSG drive.”
The younger generation in India consumes Chinese products like Vivo, Oppo or Xiaomi smartphones, which have captured a lion’s share in the Indian market. TikTok is very popular, too.
However, after border rows in past weeks, an application called RemoveChinaApps clocked over 1 million downloads before being removed from Google Play Store. The application showed users which apps on their phones were of Chinese origin and nudged them to remove them.
Similarly, the decision of the Indian government to impose new restrictions on foreign investment from China was well received on social media where young Indians engage vigorously.
As a teacher of international affairs, I see my students opting for essay topics that squarely lay the blame on China for the COVID-19 pandemic.
Previous generation of Indians made up their minds about China after the 1962 war, and I fear that the current generation of Indians are following suit. More than the short-term impact on market shares, the real danger lies in losing another generation to form a firm negative opinion on China.
Rajdeep Pakanati is a former Ministry of Foreign Affairs Taiwan Fellow and teaches international politics at OP Jindal Global University.
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