India-Pakistan tensions set to sour regional summit

India-Pakistan tensions set to sour regional summit
Indian paramilitary troopers patrol the tense streets in Tral, ahead of state assembly elections.

COZENS, 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 Kashmir in a decade, and comes as NATO-led troops prepare to pull out of Afghanistan, intensifying the India-Pakistan rivalry as the countries vie for influence there.

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.

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