Grand Tamasha

Ashley J. Tellis on India’s China Conundrum

Episode Summary

This week on this show, Milan sits down with the Carnegie Endowment’s Ashley J. Tellis, one of the world’s foremost experts on Indian foreign policy.

Episode Notes

For the first time in decades, shots have been fired between China and India along the Line of Actual Control. As India grapples with the twin domestic crises of COVID and the economy, it simultaneously must manage a complex diplomatic and defense engagement with the Chinese.


This week on this show, Milan sits down with the Carnegie Endowment’s Ashley J. Tellis, one of the world’s foremost experts on Indian foreign policy. Milan and Ashley discuss recent fighting along India’s Chinese border, the motivations animating Chinese strategic calculations, the implications for U.S. foreign policy, and growing international concerns about the character of India’s domestic regime.



  1. Ashley J. Tellis, “Hustling in the Himalayas: The Sino-Indian Border Confrontation
  2. Ashley J. Tellis, “India’s Path to the Big Leagues
  3. Carnegie India webinar, “The Sino-Indian Border: Escalation & Disengagement
  4. Sushant Singh, “Can India Transcend its Two-Front Challenge?
  5. Seema Sirohi, “Pre-Election Bhai-Bhai

Episode Transcription

Milan  00:11

Welcome to Grand Tamasha, a co-production of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Hindustan Times. I'm your host, Milan Vaishnav. For the first time in decades, shots have been fired between China and India along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Months of simmering tensions along the contested border have led to intermittent skirmishes and few unambiguous signs of resolution. As India grapples with the twin domestic crises of COVID and the economy, it simultaneously must manage a complex diplomatic and defense engagement with the Chinese. There is no one better on the planet to talk about the China-Indian dispute than my colleague, Ashley J. Tellis. Ashley holds the Tata Chair for Strategic Affairs at Carnegie and has studied Sino-Indian competition for years. Ashley, thanks for coming back on the show.


Ashley  00:54

Thank you, Milan. It's a pleasure to be back.


Milan  00:56

Actually, let me start by asking you for a bit of a recap. Last June, you wrote a Carnegie essay titled "Hustling in the Himalayas," and in it you had the following to say: "The current crisis unfolding along the LAC appears on one level to be a continuation of the trends witnessed in the foregoing years. But this time, there is one important difference: unlike the discrete and geographically localized confrontations of the past, the latest encounters are occurring at multiple locations along the LAC." So, jog our memory by telling us what exactly went down at the start of the summer.


Ashley  01:37

Okay, so let's start with where you began, Milan. For the last decade or so. Indians and Chinese soldiers have been engaged in competitive patrolling across the Line of Actual Control. In other words, small platoons of troops basically go up to the limits of their claim lines. Sometimes they confront each other. Occasionally, there is a standoff of sorts, but then they both withdraw to their rearward bases and life goes back to normal. What happened this year was fundamentally different, and it was fundamentally different in two counts. First, there appeared to be a variety of intrusions at different points along the Line of Actual Control in eastern Ladakh, which were quite coordinated. So it was not random encounters between patrolling platoons but Chinese penetrations at important salience along the Line of Control. So, that was the first difference: it was a coordinated action. The second difference was that the troop strength was much greater than we have seen in the past. So, previous encounters involved platoons, sometimes squads, which are smaller components - this time it was intrusions in battalion strength. And these were battalion strength intrusions that are obviously pre-planned because, you know, you don't task battalions to move in strategic locations without having given some thought to what it is you want to achieve. And so the crisis was fundamentally different from the encounters that we've seen in the past several years.


Milan  03:22

Your analysis concluded that the Chinese maneuvers that you've been describing could not have occurred without "a high degree of Chinese premeditation and approval for its military activities from the very top." Now, you talked about the premeditation point. But what evidence do we have for the latter point that this must have received approval from the military brass?


Ashley  03:48

In the unclassified realm, we have absolutely no evidence that provides any sort of confidence in an answer to this question. But the inferential dimensions are actually more significant - to my mind are satisfactory enough to answer the question, and this is the essence of the inference. The troops that intruded into the pockets along the Line of Actual Control were troops that were diverted from a major Chinese military exercise that had taken place in western Tibet. Now, military exercises are very scripted affairs. They require quite a lot of staff planning beforehand. And you don't deviate from the plan unless you have reason to deviate. And so the fact that these forces were moved out of an annual planning cycle - they use the exercises as deception, to really lull the Indians into believing that what was happening in western Tibet was what the Chinese do every spring. But in fact, they use those troops, then move and seize the heights in four locations along the LAC in the Galwan Valley, in the hot springs Gogra area, and along Pangong Tso, while beefing up their presence much more substantially than it's been in recent times in the Depsang Plains. So, given what we know about command and control in the PLA, this is not an army that relies on the individual initiatives of lower formations - it is an army that is very stringently directed from the top. And it's done for political reasons in China. And so I feel confident in saying that, even though we don't have sort of documentary evidence or evidence in other forms that is clear at this point, I feel confident in saying that this had to be approved at the very top. Because, one, the scale of the action involved, and two, the risks of the action involved. You can imagine, you know, Xi Jinping and the Chiefs of Staff, the Joint Staff in Beijing would not want to be surprised if they suddenly discovered that there was a war because some Chinese Colonel decided to get frisky on the front. So I think that is good reason for believing that this was centrally directed.


Milan  06:25

So, that's actually a really good segue to the present. Officials in both countries have accused the other side of firing shots along the LAC for the first time in decades. On the 29th and 30th of August, we are led to believe that Indian Special Forces are said to have occupied several peaks in Ladakh, prompting a whole slew of Chinese denouncements. What is the source, in your view, of this latest flare up? And how does it relate to the events of early summer that you just described?


Ashley  06:56

Okay, so we have to go back to what happened after the early summer. So, we had Chinese occupations of territories that India claims. There was a painful event on the night of June 15, where 20, at least 20 Indian soldiers were killed and some unknown number of Chinese soldiers, the first loss of life on the Sino-Indian border in many decades. And ever since that time, India and China have been engaged in a series of military level as well as diplomatic negotiations, trying to walk the Chinese back from their occupation. So, essentially, from June 15 onwards, diplomatic activity to negotiate a mutual withdrawal has been underway, but with absolutely no success. And early on in the crisis, I had argued that while the diplomacy is essential, it's unlikely to produce the leverage to get a country like China to walk back from its fait accompli strategy, which is essentially: occupy territory, then confront the adversary with the onus of pushing them out. And I'd suggested that what India ought to be thinking about was essentially a tit-for-tat strategy, where it does to China what China did to itself. Now, it appears that that was finally done on August 29. We don't know the precise sequence of events, but what is quite clear is that the Indians seem to have detected some Chinese movements on the south bank of Pangong Tso - all the previous action was on the north bank - and in a pre-emptive move, the Indians responded to the evidence of that movement and quickly deployed troops at multiple locations to seize the commanding heights at different points in the Kailash Range. And so, in effect, what India has done is paid back China in its own coin. On the southern bank of the Pangong Tso, Indians now occupy the commanding heights - in many cases, up to the limits of their claim lines, just as on the northern bank of the Pangong Tso the Chinese did the same in April, in May. And I think the Indian calculation was twofold. At the purely tactical level, they did not want to end up losing more territory, with the word "losing" in quotation marks because these are disputed areas. But they didn't want to lose more territory as they did on the northern bank. And then the political calculation, I think, was to be able to hold areas that China values and use it potentially as a pawn in a negotiation that would then lead ideally to complete this engagement along the entire eastern Ladakh front. Now, whether that's borne out, or whether that will deliver, only time will tell, but the Indians have certainly acquired a few more negotiating chips today than they had in the past.


Milan  10:03

So, speaking of negotiating chips, amidst all of this, the Indian and Chinese foreign ministers recently held a meeting on the sidelines of a regional summit in Moscow. And they emerged from that meeting with a five point statement - harkening back to another era, perhaps - pledging to "continue dialogue to disengage as quickly as possible, maintaining a necessary distance and easing the situation on the ground." What is your reaction to what the two governments are saying publicly? Does it appear that so-called confidence-building measures seem to be working?


Ashley 10:38

I am a little more pessimistic. I think it's wonderful that the two ministers met because at the end of the day, if this crisis is resolved, it will be resolved only at the top, it will be resolved only by the leadership in both countries concluding that this aggravation is not worth the sacrifice of larger strategic interests. So, to that degree, the conversations that the Indian National Security Adviser Mr. Ajit Doval has had with his counterpart, the Chinese Special Representative, and Minister Jaishankar's meeting with the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Moscow are extremely helpful. But the communique that was issued actually does not inspire confidence, and I will point to three elements that are worthy of note. First, despite there having been a joint communique, both sides also issued separate statements on their own, which is usually not done if there is complete agreement on an issue. In effect, the communique stated what is the minimal common denominator of agreement, and then the separate messages that both sides passed on to the press afterwards indicated where the differences lay. So just the process alone gives you reason for doubt that everything is well. Second, the content of the communique I thought was very interesting. The Indian side emphasized the importance of border stability, which essentially means China desisting from doing what it has done since late April. The Chinese side emphasized the Development Partnership, almost as if to say, "Forget about what has happened at the border, let's just focus on development." Right? That's not a good sign for resolving the conflict. And then the third point, which I think was actually the most striking, was the complete absence of any reference to a restoration of the status quo ante, which has been India's persistent demand since the beginning of this crisis. So, I see the meeting between Minister Jaishankar and Wang Yi as one more step in what will be a long and arduous negotiation that in all probability will actually go well into the winter, and possibly even beyond. I'm not convinced that we've seen the end of this crisis.


Milan  13:10

So, what are we talking about here, Ashley? Because we are now seeing some, I would say, serious analysts who are openly fretting about the prospects of a shooting war between these two large neighboring countries. This could come about either due to miscalculation, error, or it could be the product of deliberate actions taken by one or both sides to raise the stakes. Do you sense an appetite in either Beijing or New Delhi for escalation? Should it come to that?


Ashley  13:41

I don't think there is a desire on either New Delhi's part or Beijing's part for war. I don't think there is a premeditated calculation about looking for a conflict. But there are large numbers of forces in proximity to one another, and so accidents can happen for two reasons. First, the rules of engagement have changed. In the old days, the rules of engagement were that both sides did not deploy firearms and certainly did not use firearms when it comes to jousting along the line of actual control. They use their fists - sometimes to deadly effect, as we discovered in mid-June. But the use of firearms was prescribed. Now, those rules of engagement have changed, and both sides have firearms. And they have more than just personnel arms, they have cruiser weapons, they have heavy weapons in very close proximity to one another. And so if the spark lights off, it's going to be a very serious confrontation. The second reality is that both sides also seem determined - and this is the political dimension - but they are not going to stand by and watch the other side nibble at what they believe is their own territory. Which means that the games that were played first in late April, early May, and now most recently in August, where one side takes the lead, occupies territory, and confronts the other with a fait accompli - those could change in very dramatic ways. That is, we could see a race by both armies to secure certain territories that they believe are theirs. And with the changes in the rules of agreement, that race could lead to provocative actions that could lead to further loss of life and then different kinds of escalation.


Milan  15:45

In a recent essay posted on War on the Rocks, defense analyst Sushant Singh had the following to say, and I thought it was quite interesting. It's getting a lot of attention. "For more than five decades, the Indian military has feared one thing above all else - a two-front war with China and Pakistan... Unfortunately for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government, India's close to realizing this nightmare scenario." Do you agree with this rather pessimistic assessment?


Ashley  16:12

I don't think it's borne out by the facts on the ground. I mean, there is very clearly Chinese-Pakistani collusion, but that collusion is at the level of politics, where even as the Chinese put pressure on India through diplomacy and through military instruments, the Pakistanis, for example, unveiled a new map of the state of Jammu and Kashmir on the margins of the SEO meeting, which caused India's National Security Adviser Ajit Doval to walk out of the meeting because he thought that the map was, as he called it, a "travesty," or words to that effect. So, there is political collusion in terms of putting pressure on India. But I do not see any change, at least no significant change, for example, in Pakistan's military disposition, in Pakistan's military posture, or its alerting system, or in a shift of Pakistani forces from their peacetime positions to wartime positions. So, if Sushant's argument is somehow that India is facing, realistically, a two-front war problem right now, I don't quite see the evidence for that. I see a major Chinese mobilization in eastern Ladakh, I see a maintenance of the standard posture in the east, around Himachal Pradesh, I see Pakistan and its capabilities pretty much in their normal peacetime positions, even as of now. There is a live LoC, a live Line of Control, on the India-Pakistan side, there is constant combat with respect to terrorism and counterterrorism operations, some artillery firing, but nothing that is out of the ordinary for this time of year. So, I think Sushant's contingency is something that we ought to watch for, but I don't think it's something that is unfolding in real time, at least at the moment.


Milan  18:27

To come back to something that that we kind of glossed over a little bit, which is the Chinese motivations for this action earlier this summer - which is, as you say, the crisis is still unfolding, we don't know where it's going to end - many people would have thought, given the international condemnation directed at China, because of COVID, because of alleged attempts to cover up its spread, its severity, and so on and so forth, that they would have tried, in order to win hearts and minds, or from a purely public relations standpoint, to not engage in this kind of "salami slicing activity," as I think you've called it and others have called it in the past. So, the unanswered question to me, and I think to a lot of people who are not experts in following this border conflict, is: why now? What is it about this moment that we're in that would lead the Chinese, if this was indeed a premeditated thing delivered from the top, to engage in this kind of aggressive action at this juncture?


Ashley  19:31

This is really the million dollar question. And again, this is one of those issues for which we have no documentary evidence of any kind whatsoever. So we are in the realm of interpretation. But there are reasonable interpretations and there are unreasonable interpretations. I don't think one should simply paper over China's political grievances vis-à-vis India. That is, I think it is unhelpful to think of this crisis as simply being a part of China's larger aggressiveness internationally. China is certainly pushing on all fronts, there's no question, but I don't think this crisis involving India is simply part of that larger aggressiveness. This is aimed directly at India because there are specific grievances that the Chinese have about India that they are trying to convey. And to my mind, those grievances come from a deep fear that Indian political actions in August last year, particularly with respect to changing the status of Jammu and Kashmir, somehow signal the beginnings of Indian revanchism and, by implication, heightened threats towards Chinese control in Tibet. Now, the Chinese are absolutely paranoid about Tibet, and they are absolutely paranoid about what India might do in order to undermine Chinese control of Tibet. And I think they misread the Modi government's Article 370 decisions completely. To my mind, those decisions were about Indian domestic politics and about the government's attempts to satisfy its own political base, which had been demanding the abrogation of 370 for now some 60 or 70 years. But the Chinese read that as something beyond domestic politics, they read this as somehow signaling a muscular India's determination to recover territories. Now, where they got that idea from, you know, we can debate, but the point is, I think all that has happened since the spring of this year is really a reaction that began to unfold as a result of those decisions made in India last year. In other words, an interesting question that I think scholars and historians will be looking to answer in the decades ahead would be something like this: if India's 370 decisions had not occurred last year, would we be seeing a crisis of this magnitude on the Sino-Indian border today? And my own sort of tepid answer to that question is no, that if there were no changes in Indian domestic politics, we would have had a continuation of past problems, but nothing of such magnitude. Now, only the evidence available in the future will corroborate or refute this. But I sensed just in conversations with many Chinese officials over the last several months, the great discomfort with Indian actions. And so I see this Chinese effort - that moving out in force to protect all its claims up to the limits of its claim territories - to be a reaction to the fear that they have that somehow something fundamentally has changed in India's attitude to its boundaries.


Milan  23:15

So, I find this extremely interesting. And just as an aside, I would also suggest if your hypothesis is correct, that perhaps we have underestimated - we as the kind of analyst community - the international repercussions of India's decision last August. Because in our own country, the United States, we have seen Kashmir enter the political conversation this election year in a highly unanticipated way insofar as there are at least grumblings. Limited amounts of data thus far suggest that the Democratic Party and its representatives' condemnation of what's happening in Kashmir, what happened in Kashmir, may be leading some Indian Americans of indeterminant significance to move over to the Republican Party. And so in some ways, you know, I think we've tended to underplay that, but it could be having a bigger impact than we might have anticipated.


Ashley  24:22

I think there is a paradoxical quality, actually, to the aftermath of that outcome. The Prime Minister's decision to vitiate 370 has been widely welcomed in India - in fact, it's one of those political decisions that appears to enjoy the support of very large majorities of the Indian people. There are some sections of course, that are very disenchanted both about the decision and the way it was implemented, but by and large, I don't see national pushback on the decision that Modi took. And yet, I think it has raised disquiet in the international community, and especially in the United States. And what worries me most about it now - the equities of the decision, the rights and wrongs of the vitiation, are things for India to decide and for the Indian people to decide, and they govern, but the consequences are things that do affect us. And what worries me about that decision more than anything else is that, one, it has made India a controversial subject in US domestic politics, which is something that we had avoided for now a good 20-odd years, and two, it has at least dented India's reputation as a democratic society. And I don't think that is in India's interest. And it will only sort of magnify the challenges that the Government of India is going to have in the months and years ahead, depending on the changes that occur in the United States in November if changes occur politically in the elections. And of course, you know, with respect to other allies, particularly in Europe.


Milan  26:13

So, this is a nice segue to the last topic I wanted to ask you about, which is the role of the United States. Seema Sirohi has reported that, indeed, the United States will sign the long awaited BECA agreement, which is an agreement about geospatial intelligence sharing. India apparently is planning on leasing drones from the US government. There will be a two plus two meeting apparently before the November 3 election. The Trump administration, by dint of these actions, if they are indeed true, clearly sees this latest crisis as an opportunity to deepen defense ties with India. In your view, is it succeeding? is it taking the right steps?


Ashley  26:55

Well, first, I think all the facts that you that you outlined are correct. I mean, all those initiatives are underway, and with a bit of luck, they will be brought to a conclusion. Second, the Trump administration has actually taken a very transparent position of support for India in this crisis. And, of course, it is motivated in part by the opportunities to confront China on a grander scale, which sort of makes it part and parcel of the U.S.'s own bilateral problems with China. But I think there's something more going on here. And the more is that I don't think the United States had the alternative of doing otherwise. That is, Chinese aggression in this instance has been so blatant that the United States could not stand by and either ignore it or not come to India's defense. What are the issues here? We all agree that those borderlands along the Himalayan territories are undefined. Those are agreed. We all agree that they should be negotiated, delimited, demarcated through a peaceful process. We all agree that the agreements that China and India have repeatedly reached among themselves since the nineties actually offer a good enough framework for how to resolve this dispute over the long term. What China has done is that it has thrown all those understandings overboard. And it's very important to recognize this, that whatever the provocations may have been, the provocations created by Article 370 or what have you, I don't think they justified a reaction of this kind. Because a diplomatic provocation should have, you know, elicited a diplomatic response, rather than a quick jump to military action, which has enormous risks. And by China taking the step to move quickly to military action, which has now resulted in the loss of life, I think it has put itself on the opposite side of the United States, which is arguing more loudly than ever for a rules based community. And so even beyond the Trump administration's own bilateral problems with China, I think they were left in absolutely no position but to support India on this count, and I think even a Democratic administration would have done the same in these circumstances.


Milan  29:46

I want to end this conversation by asking you about India's own domestic transformation. This is something that has come up in several different ways. Let me try to tie it up. You had a recent essay for Carnegie in which you argued the following: "The community of liberal democracies internationally stands to lose if domestic unrest fueled by confrontational politics stymies India's growth or if India enlarges its material capabilities only by sacrificing its liberal character." I've been having a lot of conversations with people around this election season. Some have argued that, "Look, Washington really doesn't care about India's democratic credentials because we have our eyes on China, and so democratic, non-democratic, liberal really doesn't matter. It's going to do business with whichever government is in power in India." What are they missing? Because what this passage of yours tells me is that democratic backsliding, not only would it be bad for India, but it also does have larger international repercussions.


Ashley  31:01

Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, there are several dimensions to this issue. First, India's democratic credentials were really what made the Western community so welcoming of India's rise. In contrast, while we "welcome" China's rise, it was a welcome that was always laced with foreboding. And the last 20 years provides innumerable examples of suspicion about China's political trajectory and the consequences of that trajectory for our interests. In contrast, we welcomed India's rise without hesitation. So, the difference that is going to be palpable is not that we won't deal with India if it becomes something other than a liberal democratic state. We will deal with India, and as long as U.S.-China competition persists, the importance of India will always remain. I think there will be two things that will change. One is the enthusiasm and the generosity with which we engage - that will change. Because, you know, Americans are a crazy people. I mean, they don't think like realists all the time. In fact, their first instinct is to think like liberals, to look at the character of the regime, and to build relations on the basis of the character of the regime, with considerations of realpolitik only following. And so, if the character of the Indian regime changes, I think the enthusiasm with which the West embraces India will be affected. The second issue is one that I flagged earlier: when people say "the United States doesn't care about what's happening in India, you know, they're going to do business" - we forget that the United States is not a sovereignty. The United States is not unipolar, it's divided sovereignty, and there are three branches of government, at least two of whom have a huge impact on decisions made about India. Now, the great thing about the last 20-odd years is that there were no divisions, either between executive and legislature or between Democrats and Republicans with respect to engaging India. If India's changes begin to now cleave the partnership that has was in place between the legislature and the executive and between Democrats and Republicans, then you will get continued engagement with India, but you will get ragged engagement. And that ragged engagement is not going to be in India's interests or our own.


Milan  34:05

My guest on the show today is Ashley J. Tellis. He holds the Tata Chair for Strategic Affairs at Carnegie. His most recent article is titled "India's Path to the Big Leagues," which is part of a larger Carnegie Compendium about the global order post-COVID. And we'll link to that in the show notes. Ashley, if there is a clearer explanation of what is happening between China and India, I certainly haven't heard it. So thank you for sharing that clarity with us, as always, and for giving us part of your time.


Ashley  34:33

Always a pleasure.