In recent years China has been challenging American dominance in the South China Sea. It has been building new military infrastructure including new airfields and deploying fighter jets, strategic bombers and long-range missile defence systems. It also has been deploying maritime militias, militarily trained fishermen, and its heavily armed coast guard is outmanoeuvring regional coast guards. It has also been expanding the size and sophistication of its artificial islands at high speed.

China has been claiming the entire South China Sea inside the “nine dash line” as its own territory. The US has been resisting Chinese claims by deploying its naval assets in the region and keeping the South China Sea free and open for international navigation.

But now with the US deciding to involve itself in the Russia-Ukraine war, an ample opportunity has arisen for China to implement its expansion plans in the Indo-Pacific region more vigorously. Given the nature of the conflict in Europe, the Americans may not be able to withdraw from it any time soon and pay sufficient attention to Chinese moves in the South China Sea. Thus the time for China to intensify its push in that body of water and broader Indo-Pacific region may have arrived.

Time For Collective Security

Currently there is no country in the region that can deter China’s push on its own. With the Americans busy in Europe, claimants in the South China Sea region have to come up with their own strategy to maintain peace and security.

It cannot be business as usual for countries in the South China Sea region any longer. There is an urgent need for building a “collective security” mechanism to resist Chinese expansion there.

As one of the biggest economies and leading democracies in Asia, which will be affected most by Chinese expansion in the region, India simply cannot afford to sit by idly while China spreads its wings in the South China Sea. It is time for India to lead from the front in building a new collective security mechanism in the region. India has broad interests in the South China Sea. Fifty-five percent of its trade within the Indo-Pacific region passes through that area. Its economic prosperity and maritime security are thus connected with the South China Sea in multiple ways.

Complete Chinese control over the South China Sea would also bring Chinese naval forces closer to the Indian Ocean and pose an existential threat to India. It is thus high time for India to make a mid-course correction in its policy and approach toward the region.

India has adopted “Extended Neighbourhood” and “Act East” policies to reinforce its reach in the region. Contrary to China’s policy of using the threat of force to settle disputes with regional countries, India is pushing for a rules-based order in the region, including upholding the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which China does not accept.

India has been deploying its navy in the South China Sea for more than two decades now. It deployed its navy in 2001 for the first time to show off its growing naval capabilities and win over the trust and confidence of regional countries.

But India’s navy is increasingly present in the region. Cam Rahn Bay in Vietnam, Sobie Bay in the Philippines, Sasebo in Japan, Busan in South Korea, Vladivostok in Russia, and Port Kling in Malaysia are some of the key ports where Indian naval ships regularly visit.

Recently, as a show of its growing confidence, the Indian Navy started deploying its assets further eastward into the Western Pacific. Last year, four ships including a guided-missile destroyer and a missile frigate were deployed to Southeast Asia, the South China Sea and the Western Pacific. The navy also conducts passing exercises (PASSEX) with various navies in the region to practice what is known as “showing the flag.”

Several regional countries such as Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Singapore are key Indian partners in these exercises. Furthermore, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei, Vietnam and the Philippines are key partners in the MILAN exercises held since 1995 near the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

Extending its reach this year, India also invited South Korea to participate in these naval exercises. Deep-water facilities established in 2012 at Campbell Bay, Nicobar, are also helping the Indian Navy to conduct surveillance operations and keep a close eye over the South China Sea.

Recently, Singapore has emerged as a key partner in India’s efforts to strengthen its engagement in the region. It signed the Defence Cooperation Agreement of 2003 and the Joint Military Exercises Agreement of 2007 to support Indian naval activities in the South China Sea. The Singapore India Maritime Bilateral Exercise (SIMBEX) conducted annually since 1994 is giving a big boost to India’s naval presence in the region.

With war in Europe, India now faces serious challenges in the Indo-Pacific region. In the face of a potential bigger Chinese push, its current level of naval presence may not prove to be strong enough to protect its shipping lines. It also has to worry about how to protect and promote the security of the eastern Indian Ocean in the face of massive Chinese naval presence in the neighbouring seas.

It has to display greater activism, both diplomatically and militarily, without hurting the sensitivities of regional countries and provoking China for counteractions in South Asia. Seeking to build multilateral conflict-resolution mechanisms to solve boundary disputes to avoid war in the South China Sea region and to make sure that the “Code of Conduct” there is fully consistent with the relevant UN conventions are big challenges for India.

Currently India is trying to make sure regional negotiations on the “Code of Conduct” are not prejudiced against the legitimate rights and interests of nations that are not party to these discussions.

Realistic And Pragmatic Approach Needed

Despite constantly increasing its undertakings in the region, India’s interests may not be fully safe and secure in the coming power shift. It is time India started taking a firmer stand against Chinese maritime expansion.

It has to give up its idealistic and moralistic position of neither being party to the disputes nor taking sides and adopt a more realistic and pragmatic approach.

Given the fact no one country in the region has military capabilities to stand up to China, there is urgent need to craft and adopt a collective security mechanism with regional countries and formulate a strong deterrence to China and stop it from spreading its wings into the Indian Ocean. The days of pacifism and appeasement policies toward China are over.

Naval engagement is good but not enough given the extent of Beijing’s multidimensional push into the region. It is time to focus more on defence and security policy alignment with regional countries in addition to naval exercises. Building collective security mechanisms and institutions is urgently needed. A meeting of minds is very critical to build collective security institutions for the region.

India needs to focus more on narrowing the policy differences between countries and understand their concerns and fears of Chinese expansion for a smoothly functioning partnership. Thus increasing the speed of building deeper and broader military-to-military cooperation in all aspects, not just naval exercises, needs to be to be undertaken on a priority basis.

Currently regional countries are deeply engaged in defence modernization programs to strengthen their military capabilities. So far, India’s cooperation and support for such programs is very minimal. India has very rarely provided its latest defence technology and weapon systems to these countries. It is time India raises its level of support and help regional countries to modernize their military capabilities.

So far while providing the latest technology and weapons systems, pure economic consideration of profit and loss were mainly guiding India’s decisions. This needs to change. India must start keeping its security and strategic interests in mind.

To match and support its push into the region, China is building a new diplomatic infrastructure all over the region, but unfortunately, India’s diplomatic infrastructure in region is in bad shape. Despite the hype at the policy level, India is still sending its best and brightest to Europe and the Americas. The Indo-Pacific region is still not a priority area for the Indian foreign-policy establishment.

As a result, mostly mediocre diplomats who sometimes lack even a very basic understanding of the region are deployed. These officers are doing more harm than good.

China is using its economic might to penetrate deeply into economies of the region. It is time for New Delhi to start preparing special incentive packages for Indian companies to encourage them to invest more in the South China Sea regional countries.

India needs to give special tax breaks and special loans to Indian companies to invest and to do business in this region. Deeper economic engagement with the region is the key to counterbalance China’s economic integration with the region.

So far, Indian support to regional countries on this front is low and mainly verbal. It is time India played a more active role in constructing a “rule-based order” and building conflict-resolution institutions. Its support to regional countries trying to fight legal battles against China in the international courts and other legal institutions needs to be significantly strengthened.

India’s people-to-people cooperation with the region is very low in comparison to what China has done in the recent past. It is time that India revives and popularizes its historical ties with region and encourages more cultural and social exchanges.

In comparison to China, very few students from the region are studying at Indian universities. It is time India increases their numbers by providing liberal scholarships and other kinds of financial support. To make informed policy decisions, New Delhi needs to create more Indian specialists in its defence and security institutes. Currently the general Indian public knows very little about the region. Very few Indians travel in the area for pleasure. It is time the government starts providing special packages to encourage Indian tourism, which will raise general awareness about the region.

In the case of a future clash with the Chinese navy, support of the general Indian public will be a crucial factor in strengthening India’s policy position in the region. It is urgent that Indian policymakers start preparing for that eventuality.