As the world adjusts to the dramatic rise of China, a string of surveys in recent years -- from rising religious feeling and the decline of Marxism to perceived strategic threats from nations like the US, Japan and India -- have served to concentrate the mind on the transformation taking place in this country.
The latest poll by Australia's Lowy Institute on the threat perceptions of the Chinese people has found that, as Chinese citizens get richer and the state more powerful, the people believe that non-traditional threats like climate change and water and food shortages far outweigh traditional challenges from Japan and even, the "restraining" hand of the US.
Interestingly, India is one of five countries (the others are the US, Japan, Russia and North Korea), which figured in several questions, asking whether it posed the "greatest threat" (14 percent), the "second greatest threat" (23 percent) or simply a "threat" to the Chinese people (34 percent).
But what also seems like a contradictory finding, the poll reveals that 60 percent of the population felt that India did not pose a threat at all.
The random sample of 1,200 adults from rural and urban China who were quizzed over the phone in late August to mid-September were also asked, in what perhaps constitutes the 21st century version of the kowtow, whether the world accorded more (28 percent), less (29 percent) or just the right amount of respect that China deserved (32 percent).
Clearly, the revealed threat perceptions vary greatly with the kind of question asked, confirming that a younger and vigorously educated population believes that the US poses the greatest threat (34 percent), the second greatest threat (45 percent) or simply a threat (50 percent).
While Japan came second in the list of traditional threat perceptions (14, 36 and 49 percent respectively), India features in the third place or squarely in the "middle" of the population in many interesting ways, confirming the uneasy place in the Chinese mind about its economically powerful neighbour.
For example, the US is variously seen as chief baiter, in terms of its large military support to Taiwan or to internal separatist threats, placing it on top of the heap of the population's threat perceptions. Meanwhile, North Korea -- a country over which China wields pervasive influence -- is at the bottom of the pile, with Pyongyang's possible collapse cited as a possible threat over the next decade.
Interestingly, India straddles the survey. With the US and Japan above it in terms of negative perceptions, and Russia and North Korea below, India is largely seen as a benign relationship, with only 14 percent saying it posed as the greatest threat.
China expert Alka Acharya points out that, despite the recent bitterness in both India and China, whether over Arunachal Pradesh, Beijing's refusal to treat Kashmiri passports on par with other Indian citizens and the fracas over the Indo-US nuclear deal, "certain civilisational echoes as well as the healthy levels of trade between the two countries" have helped shape attitudes.
Acharya feels that, despite the various public spats reported in the media in both countries, India is still not seen as a combative power, unlike the US. "Perhaps, there is a feeling that they can still deal with India, while the US is a much more powerful country. In fact, the Chinese elite is finely attuned towards the American elite, just like the Indian elite, and this shapes their attitudes," he says.But the poll also found that non-traditional threats like climate change (76 percent) and water and food shortages (67 percent) were seen as more important than Japan's acquisition of nuclear weapons, America's restraining hand on China, internal separatism and nuclear weapons held by other countries.