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The Geo Interview with Mr. Ashley Tellis

Updated: Oct 9, 2023

Mr. Ashley J. Tellis is the Tata Chair for Strategic Affairs and a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, specializing in international security and U.S. foreign and defense policy with a special focus on Asia and the Indian subcontinent. This Geointerview hosted by Geostrata's Pratyaksh Kumar, covers a host of issues that focus on the renewed and evolving nuclear paradigms in the world. Through the same base, Mr. Ashley also discusses his views on the wider geopolitical trends, as they continue to unfold.

Mr. Ashley Tellis

Image Graphics by Team Geostrata

Pratyaksh Kumar: Welcome, everyone. Today we're very excited to host Mr. Ashley Tellis, who hardly needs an introduction, but nevertheless, he is a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment For International Peace. Welcome to the Geostrata sir.

How are you?

Mr. Ashley: I'm very well, thank you. Thank you for having me.

Pratyaksh Kumar: Yes, sir, Before we come onto the peculiarities of nuclear weapons in South Asia, in your opinion, how much do you think that the ongoing war has brought about or re-emphasized the importance of nuclear weapons and deterrence?

Mr. Ashley: I presume when you say the ongoing war, you're talking of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, is that correct?

Pratyaksh Kumar: Yes, sir

Mr. Ashley: So I think the conflict between Russia And Ukraine has been a rude reminder of the fact that nuclear weapons have not gone away. And I would say they remind us of the reality of nuclear weapons at two levels.

One, because the Russians have made a variety of nuclear threats, some very blatant, some more subtle, and that reminds us of the realities of nuclear coercion or nuclear brandishing.

The second reality, which did not require any utterance, but is still part of the reality

of the world, is that when states have nuclear weapons, it does not eliminate conflict, or rather, it eliminates some kinds of conflict, but enables other kinds of conflicts. And even if the Russians had not uttered the word nuclear, that reality would not have disappeared. And it's another way of saying that when a state has nuclear weapons and is confronting another state without nuclear weapons, then the state that has nuclear weapons acquired a certain freedom to pursue strategies that disadvantage the state without nuclear weapons.

And this is something that we are reminded of because, if you remember, the Ukrainians, once upon a time, did inherit the nuclear weapons of the former Soviet Union and they gave up those nuclear weapons because there were assurances given to Ukraine through the Budapest memorandum of which Russia was a signatory that Ukraine's territorial integrity would be respected and that there would be no penalties for Ukraine to give up the nuclear weapons that it had inherited from the former Soviet Union.

Now, I suspect that Kyiv deeply regrets the fact that it gave up those nuclear weapons, because, in effect, Russia now has the advantage of being the sole nuclear power in this conflict, and as a result of that advantage, is able to pursue a strategy essentially, of conquest. Because that was certainly Putin's intention, to conquer Ukraine and absorb it once again into Russian territory. So this is a long-winded way of saying that what the Ukraine conflict has done is that it has reminded us that nuclear coercion and the threat of nuclear coercion are still present. And that is reflected clearly in the utterances that have come out of Moscow through the course of the conflict.

The reality of nuclear coercion is also ever-present particularly in circumstances when you have two parties facing off with one state having nuclear weapons and the other being bereft of them. I also want to make another point, actually, which is very important in the Indian context. When India thought about acquiring nuclear weapons, this is going back to the 1960s, soon after the Chinese Nuclear test of 1964, one of the most important things that surfaced repeatedly in the Indian Debates was the fear of nuclear blackmail. And even as late as 1998, when India tested nuclear weapons, the biggest argument made for India's possessing nuclear weapons was the threat of blackmail.

That India did not want to be in a position where it was coerced by another nuclear weapons state. The fear was China because China was the nuclear weapons power. But from onwards, after it became clear that Pakistan was pursuing a nuclear weapons program, the Indian fear that it would be The subject of coercion, nuclear coercion by Pakistan, was a very prominent factor in why India pursued its own nuclear weapons program and then brought that program to completion in the late 1980s. So what is happening between Russia and Ukraine is not merely a theoretical problem that is far, far away from India. It's a concern that very much animated Indian policymakers whenever they thought about nuclear weapons.

Pratyaksh Kumar: Sir, given your description of nuclear brandishing or nuclear blackmailing, do you think there is a necessity for India to relook at its 'No- first use policy'?

Mr. Ashley: So this has been a subject of great debate ever since India first articulated its nuclear doctrine in the aftermath of the nuclear tests. And in recent times, it has become the subject of quite an acrimonious discussion in India, sometimes because of the reality of Pakistan's nuclear coercion and the present threats of nuclear. I actually happen to have a different view.

The question of whether one has a no-first-use policy is not simply a rhetorical question, it's really a question of one's strategic circumstances.

And my view has been that in India's case, there is a compelling reason to hold on to the no-first-use doctrine. And the reason to hold on to that no-first-use doctrine is that India is fundamentally secure with respect to the conventional forces that it has and that India can defend itself adequately against both Pakistan and China through the use of its conventional forces alone. I think India has a measure of superiority over Pakistan, and I think it has sufficient conventional capabilities. And in any case, even if those balances were to shift, India can correct the weaknesses in the balance relatively easily through additional conventional investments.

And so India does not have to go down the road of opening the door to nuclear

competition by changing its no-first-use policy. States that have declined to have a no-first-use policy are states that are generally conventionally inferior to their competitors. And Pakistan is a classic case of a country that has conventional inferiority in a relative sense compared to India and therefore feels compelled to take refuge behind the threat of the use of its nuclear weapons.

Pratyaksh Kumar: Well, sir, you know, your description summarizes to an extent the ongoing debate that is going on in India's foreign policy circles. So now I would want to draw your attention even closer to the India-China relationship. Now, your book, striking Asymmetries, mentions that. Even if slightly there is this nuclear imbalance between India and China. So, do you think that this nuclear imbalance affects the way in which the two countries deal with each other, especially when it comes to hard geopolitical questions or matters like the conflict going on at the LAC?

Mr. Ashley: So it's very hard actually in the abstract to think about nuclear balances or nuclear imbalances. The idea arose during the Cold War because both the United States and the Soviet Union had very distinctive types of nuclear strategies. And the nuclear strategies that both sides pursued were what in the literature called strategies of denial. That is their nuclear weapons but targeted at the other's nuclear weapons.

So in essence, they were war-fighting nuclear strategies. So US nuclear weapons were aimed at Soviet nuclear weapons and vice-versa. And in the context of that kind of nuclear strategy, the idea of a balance made sense because it opened the door to questions like, can we eliminate the other sides' nuclear weapons in a first strike?

And so all the discussions about nuclear balances arose in the context of what was called first-strike instability. Because if your strategy requires you to attack the other side's nuclear weapons before they can be used to attack you. Then the questions of balance made sense because then you had to measure how many nuclear weapons you had, what the reliability of those weapons was relative to the numbers and the reliability of the weapons of your competitors, and so on and so forth.

If you have a nuclear strategy, however, that is not aimed at denial but is aimed at punishment, which is. I'm going to use my nuclear weapons not to attack your nuclear weapons, but rather to attack your cities. Then the idea of a nuclear balance doesn't make too much sense because even a small number of weapons can cause extraordinary amounts of damage.

If they are used to attack and adversity cities, uh, they make. More sense only in the context of attacking ads and adversary weapons. Now, for the longest time, the issue of a Sino-Indian nuclear balance was essentially irrelevant because China had nuclear weapons aimed at Indian cities, and I presume that India's nuclear weapons or at least some number of them are aimed primarily at Chinese cities.

And in that context, the idea of a balance really does not make too much sense because even a small number of Indian weapons can cause enormous damage to Chinese cities. And the fact that China's nuclear weapons with, uh, which are bigger. And more numerous can cause much greater damage to Indian cities, doesn't make much of a difference because the lethality of these weapons on both sides is really quite significant.

The problem arises, however, uh, in two different ways going forward. First, Sino-Indian relations were relatively stable. Until very recently. And so the fact that both sides could hold the other cities at risk was something that was part of the architecture of the relationship, but not central to the relationship because the basic relationship was quite stable today if the troubled relations between India and China persist.

And so when you ask the question of whether there is an imbalance in the Sino-Indian nuclear realm, the first question you have to ask actually is not about nuclear weapons, but about the character as long as the relationship was stable, as long as the relationship was relatively at equilibrium, they didn't have to be, it didn't have to be a friendly relationship, but it had to be a relatively peaceful relationship. The nuclear weapons really were completely peripheral, but it is in the.

It is in the prospect of thinking about a more troubled relationship that the question of balance becomes relevant.

So that's the point number. Point number two is that today the Sino-Indian nuclear capabilities are of course changing on both sides, but they're changing most dramatically, uh, on the Chinese. And the change that is occurring in China is occurring in two forms. First, the number of weapons that the Chinese are building are growing quite dramatically. So whereas in the old days during the Cold War, for example, China probably never had more than 200 nuclear variants.

Today, the Chinese nuclear force is probably double that size. And the expansion of that force shows no signs of stopping. India in contrast, is believed to have somewhere between 102 hundred weapons. In other words, the change in the Chinese nuclear force in terms of numbers is quite dramatic. But even more significantly, it is the character of that force that is changing, uh, in, in, in very market ways and the character of the force is changing in that China today has moved beyond simply having nuclear weapons that can target and adversity cities.

And is slowly moving towards developing nuclear capabilities that can actually target

another country's weapons. Now, that is an unsettling prospect because if you have China in a situation where it meets three conditions, first, it has an ever-growing rivalry with India. And a very difficult political relationship with India. That's condition one.

Two, it has a much larger nuclear arsenal in terms of numbers compared to India. That's conditions two and three. It's a much larger nuclear arsenal. It's not targeted simply at Indian cities but actually could be targeted at India's nuclear weapons itself. That's condition three.

Then you could potentially be setting the stage for some serious instabilities. And that's the issue. So when one looks to the future if one faces a situation where China can target India's nuclear weapons and might be tempted in an acute crisis, To attack India's nuclear weapons and disarm it.

Essentially then what China will have succeeded in doing is essentially removing India's capacity to deter China from the use of its nuclear weapons. And so it is the confluence of these three factors that are now raising troublesome Questions about stability. The Sino-Indian nuclear balance and the idea of the balance itself, which I had previously dismissed, now become relevant because of these three conditions.

A growing set of troubles in the political relationship is, is a severe imbalance in numbers. And three, the growing Chinese ability, not simply to attack Indian cities, which had always had, but actually now to hold at risk India's nuclear weapons itself. And so, you know, this is obviously not a threat at the moment because I think it's something that India will manage in its own way, but over the longer term could become serious.

And therefore it needs watching and my purpose in the book was to simply alert the observers that there is a change that is occurring in China's pasture, which was not true for the Chinese pasture throughout the Cold War and therefore confronts India with some challenges. India now needs to think about and find ways to address this.

Pratyaksh Kumar: And so it is in that context that conversations about a balance begin to become relevant, so you have really intrigued me with this thing right and this draws me to a very popular question that I think even you would like to answer is, that if the Chinese are going through modernization and if that has a possibility of unsettling the balance that has stayed between both the countries, where does the solution lie?

Does India need more SSBNs? Do we need more aircraft carriers or is it like a mixture of both these things and a closer alliance with the West or us in particular?

Mr. Ashley: So it's very hard actually in the abstract to think about nuclear balances or nuclear imbalances. So one way to answer that question is simply to say that if India and China were to improve their relationship dramatically, The sense of threat that is embodied in the nuclear dimension simply disappears. Right? And I think India and China will both make efforts in their own ways at improving that relationship.

But whether that relationship will improve to the point when nuclear weapons become irrelevant is really the heart of the issue. And there are reasons to believe that that relationship is not likely to improve to that degree. In other words, even though relations may become more stable, the nuclear requirements on both sides are unlikely to disappear, which means we are back in the same world.

In a world where the relationship may be better but is not so good, uh, so as to make nuclear deterrence relevant. So how does India improve, uh, its nuclear deterrence? And that brings us again to the core of the question, which is nuclear deterrents.

I think the simplest thing India can do, particularly because the threat emerges now from China's ability to hold at risk.

India's nuclear weapons and not simply Indian cities is to look for ways in which India can make its nuclear weapons more secure. And I think there are two parts to that question.

First, India must make its nuclear weapons safer. That is, there must be weapons that are not prone to accidents or accidental detonations. And this is a serious issue with India's nuclear weapons.

And two, those nuclear weapons must also be made most survivable. That is nuclear weapons must not become easy victims to a Chinese attack. And I think India needs to work on both of these fronts. It needs to make its weapons safer so that when it attempts to protect them, either by movement or by different forms of, uh, basing, they're not susceptible to going off accidentally when these destinations aren't intended.

And so India needs to pay attention to the safety of its weapons, and it needs to look at its weapons design. It needs to look at the materials that it uses, particularly with respect to the conventional high explosive detonators and their weapons and so on and so forth. So there's a whole question of safety that India needs to pay attention to.

And second is the question of survival. The question of survivability is intimately linked with the character of how these weapons are protected. Now, most of India's weapons today are land-based weapons. That is their weapons that are either carried by aircraft or they're carried by missiles, and those are based on land.

Now, the problem, of course, with land-based missiles is that sooner or later the location of these weapons can be detected. Because we are living in an age of relatively ubiquitous intelligence, whether it is governmental sources of intelligence, or whether it is commercial sources of intelligence, with a little effort an adversary can find out where your weapons are located.

And once it identifies where these weapons are located, it could be tempted. And I admit, you know, it's not easy to act upon these temptations because nuclear weapons are fairly horrendous things. But you could imagine in a crisis and adversity would be tempted to use its weapons to destroy the other side's weapons and thereby disarm it.

And so what India needs to do is to make certain that the Chinese never have an opportunity to succumb to the temptation of launching disarming first strikes on India's nuclear weapons. In other words, India needs to make requisite investments and survivability, and the best investments India can make are essentially disguised, where these weapons are located so that the other side can never find out where they are.

And the best way to disguise weapons today is to essentially base them at sea because once they are deployed in submarines, they're essentially lost in the ocean wastes, and they become very hard to use. Now you've gotta be a truly advanced power of the United States to be able to identify where the adversaries' submarines are, and not even the United States can do that perfectly, the best way in which India can ensure the survivability of its weapons is to make certain that most of its weapons are deployed at.

Today, the proportion of India's sea-based weapons is relatively small. Over time, India should focus on increasing the proportion of its weapons at sea relative to the weapons at land, uh, simply so that it denies China the temptation of any disarming first. And I think that's where India probably will go. It's certainly where India should go, and it's what most medium nuclear powers have done in the past.

So if you look for example, at, uh, the United Kingdom of France, the bulk of the British and the French nuclear deterrents are sea-based deter.

They're deployed in submarines, which are regularly on patrol, and because they are on patrol at sea, they're relatively invulnerable, and because they're relatively invulnerable, they cannot be targeted by an adversary, and therefore the means of unleashing a second strike in case they become victims of a nuclear.

Those capabilities are ever-present. And that's what deterrence is about. It's a way of signalling to an aggressor that no matter what the aggressor does, the defender can unleash enough pain to make that aggression not worth the benefit. And that's essentially what an invulnerable second-strike nuclear capability gives you.

And I think over time, that's why India should deploy a larger fraction of its nuclear weapons at sea, uh, on submersible systems like submarines, and that will protect it against any Chinese capacity to target India's land-based systems. And for that to work India obviously again needs to have safe nuclear weapons. That is weapons that do not accidentally detonate because they end up in adverse environmental conditions, and there are all sorts of complications when you deploy weapons on missiles, whether they're land-based or sea-based.

And two, India should have a sufficiently effective fleet of relatively silent submarines.

That provides its sea-based systems with immunity from detection, and that's the direction that I think India ought to go well. So that was a very nuanced answer, but I presume that maybe SSBNs are the more effective solution for India as of now.

Pratyaksh Kumar: Well that was a very nuanced answer but I presume that maybe SSBN is the more effective solution to India as of now. Now, sir I want to zoom out on the nuclear situation in South Asia. I recently started reading the grasping great. So now it leads me to ask you the questions which I presume are the most pertaining questions that especially Indians but also everyone in the world are seeking answers for.

First is where do you see India going in terms of its position in the global stage maybe by 2047 or maybe in a decade? And the other question is, Where is the U.S- China relationship heading towards because most of our geopolitics has been shaped under this umbrella so what would you say on that?

Mr. Ashley: So let me answer the second question first and then I'll answer the first question next. I think the U.S.- China relationship appears destined to be rivalries because both countries have begun to see each other a serious competitors and therefore, I think you are going to get quite persistent competition between the United States and China for as long as I can see.

This doesn't mean that the relation is destined to be perpetually troubled that is a function of specific precipitates of rivalry in conflict at any given point of time but it is definitely destined to be rivalries that is both sides are likely to see the other as essentially a threat to their interests and both sides will find ways to manage the other as a strategic competitor and I think it is lightly to remain the case for at least other couple of decades and why do I say another couple of decades because for at least another 20 years the Chinese economy and the U.S. economy will be the two most powerful economies in the global system and they will be economies that are qualitatively different both in character and size from all the other economies in the global system.

In the other words, the relative size of the U.S. and Chinese economies will be such that they will have no other pairs at least compared to other states.

Now when you compare the agglomeration of the state for example European Union then you can imagine third entity like European Union is comparable in size to the Chinese and American economies but if you take the agglomeration like the European Union out of the equation and just look at states so low then only the united states and China will stand apart from all the other states in the global. So the fact of the matter is from a period of unipolarity which I think was the right description in the aftermath of the global war.

We are slowly evolving a return to polarity with China and the united state's being the two largest concentrations of power in the international system and large enough by some orders of difference compared to all other states and because they are going to be peers in that sense i.e., roughly comparable in size and roughly competitive in the interests.

The international system for at least two decades is likely to be bipolar and because of that bipolarity, and because the two states have been competing objectives whether those be rivalries over Taiwan, whether those be rivalries over who is hegemonic in the indo-pacific, whether those are rivalries as who is the most important stakeholder in the international system, I mean you pick your issue. It appears in the United States that China will have sufficient differences over various matters that leave them in a competitive relationship.

So I think both sides have attempted to modulate that competition so that it does not degenerate into war, one can only hope that they are successful because you know the war between the two great powers is a catastrophic outcome both for the powers themselves as well as for the bystanders and so one can only hope that this competition does not devolve into a hot war but into the sides, but all the same whether they are at peace or whether they are in conflict the system will remain bipolar and will remain bipolar for at least another two decades.

After that, it appears as if India can sustain its growth. It appears as if the system will become weakly tripolar and I say weakly tripolar because by 2050 India will become the world's third-largest economy by almost every projection. But it is still not in the same league as the united states and china, it is still an economy that is much smaller than that of United states and China so even though it is larger then every other single economy in the interstate system it is still not comparable in size to that if the United States and China but you can consider the system tripolar because the gap between the united states and china are one hand and India on the other is very large.

While the gap between India and the next largest economy is also very large and so you can consider this system to be tripolar at that point but I will say weakly tripolar because the gap between India and China will be substantial. So, at that point the question really becomes India can play a very interesting role because classical realism would tell you that tripolar systems are unique in that and makes a huge difference in terms of whom it balances with because it's not strong enough to be a genuine third pole at least in this case but it's not so weak inconsequential either. So, whom it allies with which of the other two poles it allies with?

In sub being extremely important for stability in that system now for the united states of course, they can't rely on India alone because it still has a very formidable set of partners, and if you look at the allies of the united states, they constitute third poles in their own right so if you are willing to admit longer relations in the international system then the system is genuinely not tripolar or weakly tripolar but is inching towards it's multiple polarity at that time, because if you assume them the European union stays intact that is a huge concentration of economic capabilities.

Japan still has a very large concentration of economic capabilities and so you can almost think of the system consisting of the United States and China along with the European Union as tripolar with two other smaller poles of some significance but not irrelevance and that is India and Japan. If you think of the world in that sense then it's genuinely a multipolar world at that time but it is a multipolar world that gives the United states enormous advantages in all those poles I just described.

It has strong relations with European union assuming that those relations possessed and it has a very strong relationship with Japan assuming that this relationship possessed and I presume that this relationship will continue to have a good enough relationship with India that gives the united states remarkable advantages if the competition with China is still persistent at that point of time. So, India has to make its choices if it has the leverage to pursue an independent foreign policy because it is certainly not inconsequential but it may still want to maintain a privileged relationship with the West because its biggest challenge in the universe is likely to remain China.

Thinking about the world in 2050 is an interesting torte experiment because if you simply look at the projections of economic growth, India becomes a significant player but it's still not a peer of the United States and China and still not a peer of the European union.

But matters much more than it does today in the international system. From India's point of view the really interesting question is; Can it accelerate its growth so that it reaches that pole position faster then 2050? and two; Can it make the right decision that allows for steady accumulation in power and those right decision that essentially has to be made at home in terms of what it does to sustaining economic form and two, increasing its connectivity with the global economy and if it continues to make the right decision with respect to reform and connectivity then I think the path would be paved for India to reach that position of world's third largest economy around 2050.

Pratyaksh Kumar: I would like to say that, I think I would be using your description as a template to see where things are going and in times to come we would surely find out. Now sir, this would be my last question to you and now this doesn't relate to India, China or the U.S.

Or what's happening in world geopolitics as such but I want to ask you about what has been your experience working in the industry in the foreign policy for so long, with the growth of Geostrata there's like a lot of interest that is brewing up in the space of foreign policy. First, what has been your experience? The second thing is what advice do you have for us young people as we say the demographic dividend for the people who are interested in this space.

Mr. Ashley: I must say that I have been extraordinarily lucky in my career that I have been able to get paid for doing what I really love, I would remain doing this kind of work whether I was paid for it or not and to be able to actually collect the salary for doing something that you enjoy is truly the most satisfying thing so everything I have over the course of my career has not felt like work because it's something that I would have done anyway and it's something I do because I enjoy it and that is truly a privilege it's not something that everyone has been lucky enough to do, and part of it has been simply because the environment in which I work a whether it was the trend or whether it was the U.S. government or whether it is now colleague.

You know these have been institution that have tried these serious thinking, and a put an input on intellectual creativity and so they have been very satisfying places to do the work that I have done and so you know I'm qualified to give advice to people on what they should do but I can tell you about that serve me well and the two things I will say that have served me well. First is to read and read widely you know from the time of this young person at Don Bosco high school in Matunga in Bombay, my teachers inculcated me with the love of reading and it didn't matter what you read but you have to read and you don't have to read simply in one particular discipline.

Watch the entire interview on the Geostrata's YouTube page





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