At Off The Cuff, strategic scholar Ashley J. Tellis says Chinese aggression in Ladakh can be seen as its desire to show India where Delhi is positioned in the Asian hierarchy

New Delhi: India’s response to Chinese aggression in eastern Ladakh has been very good so far even though it got off to a bad start because of not being able to detect the initial incursions until they had occurred, strategic scholar Ashley J. Tellis has said.

Speaking to Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta at the latest edition of Off The Cuff Friday, Tellis said, “The fact that India has brought up its forces to the front and refused to succumb to Chinese efforts to impose a fait accompli, I think should send a signal to Xi that this is not going to be a walkover.”

According to Tellis, who is a Senior Fellow at think-tank Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, President Xi Jinping’s attempt to complete Beijing’s reunification project and “rightfully” secure what he believes has always belonged to China is the reason behind Chinese aggression in eastern Ladakh.

Explaining the reasons behind Chinese aggression in Ladakh, where the PLA has transgressed at multiple places, Tellis said, “President Xi Jinping sees himself at being at a point in history, where Chinese power enables him to complete that reunification project.”

Xi looks at the world in “considerable disarray”, said Tellis. “He sees the United States as not willing to exhibit global leadership. And so this is a great opportunity from the point of view of Xi Jinping to sort of go out and finally secure what he has believed has always been China’s.”

Moreover, the aggression in eastern Ladakh can also be perceived as the “recovery of status that China once enjoyed in the international system”, said Tellis.

“If those dreams have to be realised, there has to be only one axial power in Asia and that’s China. Any other powers that end up posing as pretenders to being China’s peers, those powers have to be cut to size,” Tellis said, adding that Xi had tried to do it with Japan and is now trying the same with India.

“The desire is to put India in a box to show India where it’s positioned in the status hierarchy of Asia,” added the scholar.

On Xi Jinping Being An ‘Opportunist’

The scholar revealed that Xi would also like to lay claims over the territory of Arunachal Pradesh. “I have no doubt that as long as the Chinese position that Arunachal Pradesh is part of South Tibet holds, he will want it,” he said.

Tellis also pointed out some “practicalities”. For instance, it is much easier to secure borderlands in Ladakh where China has its advantages, in comparison to Arunachal Pradesh due to a greater Indian presence.

He also made the case for Xi being an “opportunist”. “He reacted opportunistically in the West. I am not sure he will do that in the East only because it’s a losing proposition and he has bigger problems right now,” said Tellis, referring to Beijing’s troubles with Taiwan, Japan and Hong Kong.

On India’s Constraints In Armed Forces

Tellis asserted that India has an “overwhelming advantage” against China and Pakistan when it comes to air or naval power, but faces a challenge with respect to the Army.

“The biggest challenge that India faces are with respect to ground forces where both vis-à-vis Pakistan and vis-à-vis China. The best India could do in practical terms is achieve a standoff, but no decisive victory,” he said.

With the ground forces dominating India’s personnel and defence budgets, Tellis said they absorb the most number of resources. However, the outcomes are “most meagre”.

“The outcomes it (ground forces) can show are the most meagre, which is it can push its two adversaries at best to a draw, but nothing beyond that,” he said, adding that India couldn’t advance its ambitions at the current levels of defence budget.

With respect to organisations, he said “India can realise operational economies through greater jointness.” He noted that India has already begun to move in that direction but not sufficiently.

Tellis also pointed out that India’s armed forces were too dependent on manpower. “As long as they’re manpower dependent, that outcome of the standoff vis-à-vis adversaries will remain the outcome. India has to move towards a more capital intensive ground force.”

This would be expensive to achieve, and would require a different kind of military labour base and a much more “operationally adventurous” military leadership, he added.

On Chinese notions on India-US relations

Tellis found it very interesting that the Chinese had “absolute conviction” in the notion that India would never end up being allies with the US. “India may engage in a dalliance with the United States as circumstances demand, but never a genuine alliance,” he said of the Chinese perception.

If the Chinese are convinced that they can rely on India’s strategic autonomy, then there are “no risks” to China essentially in terms of their competition with India, he said.

Asked what India could do to beat this perception, Tellis said the answer to this cannot be found in more conversations or diplomacy. It could only be answered by “tangible things that we do together on the ground”.

On India’s Desire For Autonomy

Speaking about the state of India-US ties, Tellis said two key limitations persisted – of capabilities that have more to do with economy and military; and India’s view of itself in the world.

“India’s desire to stay completely autonomous at every moment is something that Americans are not quite used to,” he said.

Currently, India finds itself in an environment where it can’t gather the resources to deal with the challenges but at the same time it “reaffirms” its independence.

“India is betwixt and between, that is neither becoming a superpower itself, nor willing to embrace more wholeheartedly the far off superpower that might help it do the balancing. I find that to be a sort of perplexing set of choices that India seems determined to make,” he added.