Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Malaysia and Singapore has once again focused the attention of Indian diplomacy on a region that is not only a hub of economic growth and prosperity in Asia but is also critical for global stability against the backdrop of China's rise.

While trade and investment remain central to India's outreach to Southeast Asia, the larger strategic context should not be lost sight of as India engages with the region. India has been building strategic partnerships with Malaysia and Singapore, but New Delhi needs to engage with the region as a whole more substantively.

New Delhi, which so often likes to sit on the margin and avoid taking sides, must assume it can no longer afford the luxury of inaction if it wants to preserve its credibility as a significant actor in both East and Southeast Asia. New Delhi has ambitions to expand its footprint in the region, which has so far been viewed as outside India's core interests. At a time when China's bullying behavior has been evident in its actions and pronouncements, India should be doing more to signal that it is ready to emerge as a serious balancer in the region. The region's states have often complained about India's diffidence and lack of seriousness. The Modi government is more serious than its predecessor, though it remains far from clear if it is sufficiently prepared to challenge China on its own turf.