NEW DELHI: India’s new premier heads to his first South Asia summit this week seeking stronger regional integration in the face of growing Chinese influence, but experts see little hope of progress while tensions with Pakistan persist.
The region’s first summit in three years follows some of the worst cross-border violence in disputed Kashmir region in a decade, and comes as NATO-led troops prepare to pull out of Afghanistan.
New Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched a charm offensive on India’s neighbours after winning a landslide election victory this year, raising hopes he would reinvigorate the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).
The Washington-based Brookings Institution said Modi had “boldly stroked new hope for the future of SAARC” after a dismal past performance that earned it a reputation as the “unruly stepchild” of international organisations.
But expectations of progress at the summit have dimmed in recent weeks “owing to the escalation along the India-Pakistan border beyond the quotidian skirmishes that typically characterise this region,” Brookings said in a recent briefing.
Modi raised hopes of a softening in relations with Islamabad when he invited all the SAARC leaders, including his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif, to his swearing-in.
But any hopes of a reconciliation were dashed when India angrily cancelled senior-level talks with Pakistan just months later, after Islamabad’s envoy to New Delhi met with Kashmiri separatists.
Since then, the disputed Himalayan region has suffered some of its worst cross-border firing since India and Pakistan signed a ceasefire a decade ago, with both sides trading blame for civilian deaths.
India’s new right-wing nationalist government has adopted a more aggressive policy on Pakistan than its predecessor.
Modi warned Islamabad in a speech during the latest unrest that “times have changed and their old habits will not be tolerated”.
His aggressive stance on Pakistan contrasts with attempts to woo India’s smaller neighbours.
The new government in Delhi says such neighbours were neglected under the previous administration, allowing regional rival China to make significant inroads in India’s traditional sphere of influence.
Beijing has cultivated close economic ties with South Asian nations including Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Nepal while forging a close political alliance with Pakistan that some see as a deliberate strategy to encircle India.
Modi’s visits to Bhutan and Nepal have “laid the groundwork for stronger and more substantive cooperation”, according to the Brookings Institution.
But experts agree that cooperation between New Delhi and Islamabad is key to the success of the eight-member SAARC, which will mark its 30th anniversary next year with little to show for its efforts so far.
India and Pakistan, both now nuclear-armed, have fought three wars since independence in 1947, two of them over disputed Kashmir region.
The 2008 attacks on Mumbai by Pakistan-based militants in which 166 people were killed dealt a blow to tentative peace talks, and mutual suspicion persists.
News reports this week said Sharif had refused to use armoured cars provided by India during the summit — although Islamabad later denied that any offer had been made.
Efforts to reduce tensions have been complicated by concern over Afghanistan’s prospects as international troops begin departing after 10 years of fighting the Taliban.
India is the biggest regional investor in Afghanistan, and was a close ally of former president Hamid Karzai.
Modi will hold his first talks with new President Ashraf Ghani during the summit as he seeks to develop India’s involvement in a country that Pakistan sees as its backyard.
No formal agenda for the meeting of leaders of the SAARC nations — Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, the Maldives, Pakistan and Sri Lanka — has yet been released.
Nepal’s foreign ministry said last week that they would discuss poverty alleviation, public health, agriculture, tourism and cross-border trade, which remains minimal, due in part to poor transport infrastructure.
Three agreements have been prepared ahead of the summit, two on improving road and rail connections and one on making it easier for countries in the power-starved region to trade in electricity.
Security is also likely to be on the agenda after Al-Qaeda’s recent announcement it has set up a new South Asia branch.
But analysts said domestic political concerns would likely take precedence, with Modi eager to appear tough on Pakistan ahead of local elections in Kashmir and two other Indian states in the coming months.
“I think the intention is to do something concrete this time,” said New Delhi-based political analyst KG Suresh, citing the three agreements, which India’s cabinet approved last week.
“But the fear is the summit may be overshadowed by what happens between the Indian and Pakistani leaders. It is crucial for SAARC that these two leaders meet.