The recent visit of Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi to Kathmandu has set in motion a process that could have far-reaching implications for India's position in South Asia and South Asian regional co-operation. Abbasi's visit was important for several reasons. For one, this was the first bilateral visit by a Pakistani premier to Nepal in 24 years. But more importantly, the visit came at a time when Nepal's relations with China are rapidly warming. Nepal's new Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli is known to lean towards China. Indeed, he recently reaffirmed this by saying that his government would pursue close ties with China so as to gain greater leverage with India. Thus, the Abbasi-Oli meeting was not just one between two South Asian prime ministers but an interaction between two of India's neighbours that are close to China. This was a meeting of minds. The two leaders expressed support for getting China into the South Asian
Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC). They also discussed steps to "reinvigorate" SAARC, including the possibility of Islamabad hosting a summit. Pakistan was to host the SAARC summit in 2016 but India, angry with it for its role in the terror attack at Uri, boycotted it and also got other SAARC members to do so. Pakistan is now rallying support among SAARC's pro-China member-states to agree to attend a summit in Islamabad.
Two years ago, India was successful in isolating Pakistan in SAARC on the question of its support to anti-India terrorism. That strategy is eroding now. China's influence among India's neighbours has grown to such an extent that India could find itself in a minority in SAARC. As things stand, Pakistan could count on support from Nepal and the Maldives for bringing China into SAARC and participating in a summit in Islamabad. China also wields immense influence over Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, and it now seems a matter of time before these SAARC members also move into China's orbit.
Hitherto, South Asia has been an Indo-centric region and India was in effect the leader of SAARC. That appears to be changing. China's influence over South Asia is enormous and its entry into SAARC is a matter of when and not if. South Asia's participation in China's Belt and Road Initiative will increase China's influence in the region manifold. Is India ready for its fallout? Delhi needs a comprehensive strategy to win back old friends like Nepal and hold back others like Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. India must refrain from acting like a big brother and a bully. It needs to act with sensitivity in responding to issues that impinge on their sovereignty.