The recent military standoff between India and China in the Galwan Valley raises a fascinating question about the attitudes of the American public towards Asia’s great powers.

We know from extensive polling that the American people are increasingly sour about China. A March 2020 survey by the Pew Research Center, as the Covid-19 pandemic began to unfold, showed two thirds of Americans have negative perceptions of China. Almost the same number considered “China’s power and influence a major threat” – an opinion also influenced by party identity, a point of significance as the US presidential election draws near, with 72% of Republicans viewing China negatively (an increase of 2% from 2019), while 62% Democrats did the same (an increase of 3% from 2019).

Yet what about India? Polls have shown Americans are more sympathetic towards India, and this includes differences depending on political affiliation. But would this attitude extend to backing New Delhi in a conflict with Beijing?

This question is important as the US has increased diplomatic and military cooperation with India, both bilaterally as well as via multilateral groupings such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, which has Australia and Japan as its other members.

Most surveys explore the relationship between the US and China or between the US and India, rather than US opinions about conflict between China and India. To explore this question, we recently conducted a poll to directly compare US public views on potential military or economic strife between China to India.

To account for these factors, we conducted a web survey via mTurk with 1,012 American respondents on 7 July 2020. Respondents were randomly assigned one of two versions of a prompt:

  • Version 1: If India and China were engaged in military conflict, would you support the US aiding India, China, or neither side?
  • Version 2: If India and China were engaged in economic conflict, would you support the US aiding India, China, or neither side?

Our findings presented in the following chart show that 63.6% of responders would have the US support neither India nor China if they were to engage in military conflict with each other, compared to 60.6% regarding economic conflict with each other. For those who did choose to support one of the countries, however, it was overwhelmingly in favour of India. For a military conflict between India and China, 32.6% preferred that the US support India, as opposed to 3.8% who preferred that the US support China. For an economic conflict, 36.3% respondents preferred US support for India, while 3.1% preferred US support for China.

Accounting for partisan identification, however, provided a more nuanced picture. One the one hand, a comfortable majority of 66.7% of Democrats prefer to support neither China nor India if they were to enter a military conflict, while 59.5% Democrats prefer to support neither China nor India if they were to enter an economic conflict. On the other hand, for those who do support the US supporting one of the countries, 27.8% prefer that the US support India and 5.5% prefer the US support China in a military conflict, while an even greater 37% prefer that the US support India and 3.5% prefer China in an economic conflict.

These trends were also prominent among Republican respondents, of whom 49.7% preferred that US not support either country during a military conflict and 54.8% during an economic conflict. Among Republicans who preferred that the US support one of the two countries in a military conflict, 47.1% preferred supporting India and 3.2% chose to support China. For an economic conflict, 41.9% chose to support India, while 3.2% chose to support China.   

That Republican support for India surpassed that by Democrats appears to challenge the belief that Democratic voters are more sympathetic to India.

These findings about partisan identity and US foreign policy are two-fold. First, among the Democrats and Republicans who prefer the US take sides during a China-India conflict, India is overwhelmingly favoured.

Second, that Republican support for India surpassed that by Democrats appears to challenge the belief that Democratic voters are more sympathetic to India.

Although we do not know what explains such a shift, it may have been caused by President Donald Trump’s remarks and actions about China related to how it runs its economy and is trying to militarily dominate neighbours. Moreover, one may assume that during an actual conflict, those hesitant to choose a side, regardless of partisanship, would be more likely to favour the fellow democracy.

China’s broader actions in the region, especially as it thwarts democratic efforts in Hong Kong and pressures Taiwan, could similarly push Americans to have a more favourable view of India in any conflict. The challenge for Indian officials, as well as US officials sympathetic to India, is to find ways to increase American public knowledge of China-India disputes and the importance of India as a strategic partner.