China’s intentions vis-à-vis India have been made plain by its latest assertion that troop disengagement has been completed at most locations along the LAC. This is far from the truth as, despite some pullback in friction areas, the Chinese are yet to vacate the spurs along Pangong Tso and intruded areas in Depsang. In other words, Beijing is unwilling to restore status quo ante. Rather extravagant new territorial claims, on India as much as on tiny Bhutan which coordinates its security with India, show that Beijing intends to keep up the strategic pressure.

In that context, as a senior naval officer has indicated, the next arena of confrontation will inevitably be the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). China has more or less established its dominance over the South China Sea region despite the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling clearly rejecting China’s expansive claims over those waters. A driving force behind China’s aggressive naval manoeuvres is its concern that rival nations could block the critical Malacca Strait through which almost 80% of China’s oil imports transit. Consistent with Beijing’s appetite for global power projection, it wants to lord over the entire stretch from the Indian Ocean, through the Malacca Strait, to the western and southern Pacific.

The Indian navy has thus, rightly, stepped up activities in the IOR, and in the short term should be in a position to interdict Chinese oil supplies if China should attack India across the LAC. In the longer term, however, the Chinese navy will move in a big way into waters around India. After all, China has already acquired ports in Gwadar in Pakistan, Hambantota in Sri Lanka, and is looking to pick up stakes in the Bandar-e-Jask port in Iran and other ports in the region, giving it the option of a “string of pearls” choking India.

New Delhi must not be caught napping again, as it has been at the LAC. To proactively balance against Chinese moves, it must boost its military capabilities in Andaman and Nicobar Islands that overlook the channels into the Malacca Strait. It must also prod the Quad grouping into becoming something more than a talking shop, involve more nations to make it a Quad plus entity, and get Australia aboard the Malabar naval exercises. Forming a broad coalition of friendly and democratic countries with assets in the Indo-Pacific region, to counter China’s aggression reminiscent of 19th century imperialist powers, is imperative.