India-China border standoff may escalate into an armed conflict: Top strategic expert Ashley Tellis

[FILE PHOTO] Indian Army truck crosses Chang la pass near Pangong Lake in Ladakh (Photo Credits: AP)

A globally-renowned strategic and international security expert, Ashley J Tellis fears that the Ladakh faceoff between India and China could well escalate into an armed conflict between the two Asian giants.

“What is very clear to me is that what is happening on the borders with India in all the different areas is certainly not some localised action, which has been provoked simply by zealous local commanders,” he told India Today in an exclusive interview.

“It is a set of actions that has been approved at the theatre level and if it has been approved at the theatre level, then it almost inevitably has been approved at the level of the general staff in Beijing as well.”

Tellis, who helped the then Bush administration craft the landmark nuclear deal with India, believes New Delhi should stay prepared militarily for a possible conflict with Beijing while both engage in diplomatic dialogue.

“India continues to be in dialogue with China itself — I think that’s clearly the first line of effort that has to be employed,” he remarked. “Second, India has to continue to make prudent military preparations, including anticipating escalation, and compel the Chinese to consider what the cost of that escalation might be for China’s own reputation and for China’s own interests, especially given that these are marginal territories nothing that fundamentally goes to China’s core interests.”

He described China’s troop movements in the Ladakh region as a clear attempt to change the status quo to its advantage.

“I think what the Chinese are trying to do is to establish new facts on the ground,” said Tellis. “By pushing troops and materials to the limits of the claimed lines, they want to change the status quo in ways that will advantage them.”

The international defence-policy analyst underscored that Beijing’s aggressive moves are motivated by mounting global pressure for its handling of the novel coronavirus outbreak.

“They are doing (this) at a time when they are under pressure because of their performance in the Covid-19 crisis. This is another way of showing that China will not be cowed by the international display over their performance of the management of the pandemic,” Tellis said.


Tellis maintained that Washington will stand beside New Delhi because the United States regards China’s muscle-flexing “unwarranted and unjustified”.

“There’s no way that India will back down nor should it because if it does then it is going to be open sesame for all kinds of tests of resolve and not just along the borders,” he cautioned. “And on the issues where the disputation is currently taking place, which is in Eastern Ladakh, Indian claims are actually resolute and the US will stand behind it.”

India, he added, has no choice but to “play the game to its conclusion” and “to try and do it in ways that do not end up in open conflict”.


Tellis, however, insisted that President Donald Trump’s offer of mediation between India and China wouldn’t really work.

“It’s very hard to explain anything why Donald Trump does what he does. But he has constantly been tempted by the prospect of being the peacemaker,” he said.

“I would not take it (the mediation offer) seriously. I think it is one more impulsive response on the part of the president. He means well but I think he is smart enough to recognise that this is an offer that is not going to go anywhere.”

Tellis agreed that dialogue between New Delhi and Beijing would help the two countries resolve their issues.

“But what has to be conveyed very clearly is that China cannot be allowed to unilaterally change the realities on the ground simple because it has the first-mover advantage in terms of shifting men and material in disputed territories.”


Asked about the range of options New Delhi can exercise with Beijing, Tellis listed a “tit-for-tat” response in the Ladakh region as one of them.

“India could simply acquiesce to the new status quo, which would be unfortunate if it did because it would only entice the Chinese to push even more,” he cautioned. “India could engage in a physical eviction of the Chinese forces but that would almost certainly lead to a military skirmish, which could have some potential for escalation into major conventional options. So that’s not a very attractive prospect as well. But the third and the most interesting possibility is that India can play tit-for-tat. There are various salients along the LAC where India has the tactical advantage and the capacity to occupy territories. So India could respond by essentially doing what the Chinese have done.”

The Chinese, he argued, need to understand that their “unprovoked action” is “deeply destabilising”. “It ultimately undermines the larger objective of keeping India away from the US. I mean actions like this will only force a deeper US-Indian collaboration, which precisely what a smart leadership in Beijing hoping to avoid,” Tellis explained.

The strategic analyst called the situation “grave” and wondered why the Chinese chose the time they did for mobilisation in the Ladakh region.

“At this juncture and time, why does an effort to lay claim to territories that really both sides have lived with the ambiguities for so long? Why does it make a difference? Why is China prepared to sacrifice the modest gains it has made in terms of building a workman-like relationship with India for really marginal territories?” Tellis asked. China, he explained, thinks “it can get away with it”

Tellis praised India’s diplomatic engagements and military movements in response to China’s buildup.


But the Chinese, he said, would retreat only when they realised the cost of a potential escalation.

“I think what will certainly happen is both sides will attempt to engage in a diplomatic dialogue to try and restore the status quo ante. But the real question is: Will the Chinese having made this investment so far walk back? I think the only way they walk back is when they realise that the costs of a serious conflict are really more than what they would want to bear,” Tellis said.

He suggested New Delhi also bring the diplomatic community, including Beijing’s friendly nations, and their influence to bear on the Chinese.

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