Toward the middle of last week, the world was captivated by news that India was deploying four of its frontline warships to the South China Sea. Three of these were to be missile-carrying ships that can be used in offensive roles. Against a backdrop, on the one hand, of intensifying military and diplomatic posturing in the region, and on the other, of continuing Sino-India confrontation since the deadly Galwan Valley clash of June 2020, the move has inspired considerable interest. So, why is India sending warships to South China Sea region? Let us see what the Indians are saying. An Indian Navy statement says that the South China Sea deployment is meant “to enhance military cooperation with friendly countries” and to “develop interoperability in the conduct of maritime operations” with them over the course of next two months. The ‘friendly countries’ in question here are Vietnam, Philippines, Singapore, Indonesia and Australia, with each of whom the Indian task force is to hold bilateral exercises. Next, they also include US and Japan (and possibly, France) with which the Indians will conduct joint exercise called the “Malabar Exercise”. Of these, the Malabar Exercise has, in the recent years, become a naval extension of the “Quad”, the informal grouping that the US has sought to put together to ‘contain’ China. Further, the Indian Navy statement notes two other important things. One, it says, the deployment “seeks to underscore the operational reach, peaceful presence and solidarity with friendly countries” and to “strengthen existing bonds between India and countries of the Indo-Pacific” (emphasis added). Two, it says, all of this is in “pursuit of the Act East policy”. So now, let us put it all together. The Indians are telling us that they are sending warships to the South China Sea as part of their “Act East Policy”. This policy, only referenced in public statements by Indian officials, and never in an authoritative government policy document, has its roots in the early 1990s. When the erstwhile USSR collapsed and the Cold War ended, India undertook a major recalibration of its foreign policy. The then-Prime Minister, Mr. P.V. Narasimha Rao formulated what is called the “Look East Policy” in 1992. As part of this policy, India expanded the sphere of its economic interest eastward to Southeast Asia. Here, as Indian economy liberalized, opened up and expanded, it was looking for a market to expand into. In this context, the ASEAN was seen by Indian leadership as a logical step forward. It began to engage with ASEAN, slowly graduating from a ‘sectoral partner’ to a strategic partner with a foothold in ASEAN-centered East Asia Summit. Today, India’s trade with ASEAN amounts to some $88 billion per annum. As India-ASEAN economic ties grew, India began to see a vastly expanded strategic interest in the region. This was because now with growing trade, India began to feel the need to secure trade routes here. At once, its trade with Northeast Asian nations (e.g. Japan, South Korea, et al) also grew, further altering India’s perception of what the region meant to it. Here, this was because India’s trade with Northeast Asian nations must necessarily pass by ASEAN countries. That is just geography. In particular, though, Indian trade also needs to go through the South China Sea, which rims the north of the ASEAN region. Thus, over time, India began to conflate Southeast Asia, Northeast Asia and the South China Sea in between as one big, interlinked whole. In the readers’ mind, this conflation should precursor the link between “Act East Policy” and South China Sea in the Indian Navy statement referenced above. Anyway, contemporaneous to India’s growing links with the region, China was also rising. Now, that India imagines an epochal rivalry with China goes without saying. It was natural that India would begin to feel insecure about its trade routes that lay so close to the Chinese sphere of influence. Further, as an increasingly buoyant China began to assert its historical claims on the South China Sea more forcibly, India began to feel increasingly intimidated. Its concerns were primarily that in event of a serious confrontation, China could squeeze, if not block, its trade through the Sea. In fact, when the Indian Navy says its deployment is meant to demonstrate its “operational reach”, it echoes this extant fear. It means to suggest that Indian navy is capable of launching offensive maneuvers far from its shores to protect trade routes in the Sea. Here, it is important to note that in signifying offensive capabilities, India may also be signaling to China that in event of a confrontation it can ‘bring the battle home’ and threaten Chinese sea lanes of communication as far away as the South China Sea. Anyway, in 2014, India graduated its “Look East” policy to “Act East”. In this, India has sought to change the nature of its engagement with the ASEAN region. From economic ties, Indian policymakers have moved into the strategic sphere, seeking to build defense partnerships. The strategic calculation on India’s part is that several ASEAN countries have border disputes with China, including in the South China Sea. By liaisoning with them, and “building interoperability”, India seeks to not only project power far in the east, it also hopes to express its support to ASEAN countries. In a roundabout way, the suggestion here is that the Indian navy may support a particular nation’s navy in guarding its territorial interests in the area (note term “solidarity” in the navy statement). By extension, this line of Indian thinking betrays the country’s strategic aspiration to take on the role of a “security provider” in the region, particularly, as a counterbalance to China. How far this aspiration is from turning into a real-world strategic factor in the regional calculus, remains difficult to say at this point in time. Though, recent launch of sea trials of India’s second aircraft carrier; development of naval facilities at the Andaman Islands, Mauritius, and, possibly, Maldives, among others; and, continuing expansion in Indian naval fleet, and its capabilities, portend that Indian Navy achieving ‘blue water’ status may not be too far off. Just the same, India is working rather proactively at this time to develop a role for itself in the region. The deployment of warships to South China Sea is a step forward in this direction. Beyond such, what remains to be said is that the above should be seen in the wider context of an intensifying confrontation that the US has started with China. In this, the US seems to view the South China Sea, and the adjoining Southeast Asian region, as a key battleground for the same. It views India as an important regional actor that it wants to use to maintain a ‘balance of power’ here. Hence, the naval deployment ties into the larger Quad-centric and China-focused Malabar Exercise that we can expect around November. Thus, in this way, Indian naval deployment is also another couplet in the elegy of Cold War that has begun its somber play in the region. Seen another way in the same context, this deployment is one more enunciation by India that it is decidedly in the US camp. Given its overt military nature, this move also portends Indian involvement with American efforts to escalate securitization of China’s immediate neighborhood as well as militarily threatening Chinese interests here. Just the same, the US Vice President, Ms. Kamala Harris, will be in the region later in August, and will do more to shape the contours of future geostrategic play here. We should be looking on with interest. A New Cold War is on and the present is churning out chapters on it at a remarkable speed. In merely looking on, if nothing else, we will continue to witness birth of the tomorrow of innumerable generations in our today.