WASHINGTON - A divided South-east Asia and a hesitant India left China space to push the boundaries both in the South China Sea and in the Himalayas, analysts say.
That may be changing with Asean countries with overlapping claims in the South China Sea seeing stronger backing from the United States, and India beefing up on both its land and sea borders.
Australia, for example, is expected to join India, Japan and the United States in India's upcoming annual Malabar joint naval exercises, when New Delhi extends an invitation to Canberra.
Together the four countries comprise the Quad, an informal security dialogue, which now should really solidify and build relations with other smaller countries, Richard Javad Heydarian, Manila-based political scientist and author told The Straits Times' Asian Insider.
"The issue historically, has been not lack of resistance to China, but divided or lack of timely, coordinated resistance," he said.
Across the continent, on India's Himalayan boundary, a bloody clash with Chinese troops in June saw at least 20 Indian soldiers - and an unknown number of Chinese soldiers - killed.
The episode has been a wake up call for New Delhi, which is now scrambling to beef up its military infrastructure on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) as the border is called. But it needs to up its game, Dr Aparna Pande, director of Initiative on the Future of India and South Asia at the Hudson Institute in Washington, told ST Asian Insider.
"India has neglected its maritime borders," said Dr Pande, whose new book Making India Great: The Promise Of A Reluctant Global Power is out this month.
The two foreign policy experts were speaking with this writer and host of the ST Asian Insider video and podcast series.
India has remained a land oriented power, Dr Pande noted - even as it has a natural advantage in the Indian Ocean.
"It took India 11 years to agree to join the Quad," she said.
"Japan joined the Malabar (naval exercise) and then India asked Japan not to be part of Malabar for a few years for fear of what China would do. Now Japan is back in Malabar. Now most likely Australia will join it this year."
The Malabar war games began as a bilateral naval exercise between India and the US in 1992, and was expanded into a trilateral format with the inclusion of Japan in 2015.
"If you want to confront a country which has not given up territorial claims dating back to the 1950s, irrespective of how deep the economic relationship is with that country, and I mean China… (and) if you believe inviting or disinviting a country will upset China, then you have not displayed a strategic policy," Dr Pande said.
"Australia should be part of Malabar and should have been part of Malabar some years ago."
From Manila's perspective, what the region needs is a "Quad plus" arrangement, Mr Heydarian said.
"I don't think the Quad is going to move towards an allied axis against China but it is very important to have some sort of congealed Quad as some sort of deterrence," he said.
"It should be made clear to China that tighter security cooperation in this part of the world is not impossible. The Quad should reach out and do capacity building among smaller Asian powers," he said.