NEW DELHI: Two days after India and Pakistan National Security Advisors concluded a surprise meeting in Bangkok that set the tone for rapprochement of strained ties between the two nuclear neighbours, India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj arrived in Islamabad on Tuesday. Swaraj is the highest ranking official in the Narendra Modi government to visit Pakistan, where she will be leading India’s delegation to the “Heart Of Asia” summit on Wednesday, as well as meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his adviser on foreign affairs Sartaj Aziz on the sidelines of the conference.

Swaraj’s visit follows a meet between Prime Minister Modi and Prime Minister Sharif on the sidelines of the COP21 summit in Paris. It may also very well be the precursor to PM Modi’s visit for the 19th Saarc summit to Islamabad in 2016.

The above represents quite a turnaround, as relations between India and Pakistan have been strained off late; just days before the meeting of the NSAs it seemed almost certain that a cricket series between the two countries, scheduled to start on December 15 as agreed to by the cricket boards of India and Pakistan, was to be scrapped following the Indian government’s shake of the head against it.

The freeze in cricketing ties wasn’t the only indication of strained relations -- the two countries were locked in crossfire exchange as each accused the other of violations across the Line of Control; NSA level-talks had been cancelled in August; and India had cancelled secretary level talks -- that had been agreed to during Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s visit for Narendra Modi’s inauguration ceremony -- over Pakistan’s decision to meet Kashmiri separatist leaders in August last year. “This is a red line we have drawn,” the MEA spokesperson had said at the time, “We have told Pakistan — you either talk to us, or to them.”

The meeting in Beijing between the NSAs and Swaraj’s visit to Islamabad thereafter represent quite a turnaround, with political pundits on both sides of the border wondering -- what changed?

It is important to note that while several high level meetings were cancelled, back channel talks between the two countries continued all along. For instance, Pakistan’s former National Security Adviser Major-General (Retd.) Mahmud Durrani met with NSA Ajit Doval and Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar in March. Although the MEA spokesperson dismissed a question in regard to whether this could pave the way for the resumption of an India-Pakistan dialogue, General Durrani was quoted by The Hindu saying that his impression is that Prime Minister Narendra Modi would “like to move forward” on the dialogue, but would rather not pick up the old format of the composite dialogue process. “Mr. Modi is a different man with a different mind and a different thinking from the previous Prime Minister,” The Hindu quoted General Durrani as saying. “I think he will probably engage with Pakistan, but he would like to do that in his own way.”

That own way has become apparent now, with domestic and foreign policy compulsions compelling India to agree to a dialogue -- one that even includes Jammu and Kashmir on the agenda (India thus far has insisted the Kashmir will not be on the agenda, with talks restricted to the issue of terrorism).

So what changed? For one, the BJP after having suffered a fairly humiliating defeat in the Bihar elections has been made to eat some humble pie in the form of a realisation that anti-Pakistan rhetoric isn’t going to necessarily translate into votes. If it’s not translating into votes, then refusing to engage with Pakistan is a lose-lose scenario as on the other hand, it also isolates India from engagement relating to the future of Afghanistan.

The strained ties between the two countries put a huge question mark on India’s participation in the “Heart of Asia” summit -- for which Swaraj has arrived in Islamabad today. This Conference is part of what is referred to as the Istanbul process on Afghanistan and will be attended by Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, China, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, the Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates and Uzbekistan. The list of participant also include 17 countries from European, US, Canada, Japan and Iraq.

India has its eyes set on Afghanistan, especially as the impending withdrawal of US troops opens up the country to new -- especially regional -- players. The level of India’s interest in Afghanistan is evinced by the former’s continuous flexing of soft power muscles, in the hope that it translates into real leverage when it should count. India’s development assistance programme for Afghanistan stands at $2 billion, making the country one of the leading donor nations in Afghanistan.

This fact of India being a lead investor in the troubled nation points to the former’s “soft power” presence in the region - through investments in hospitals and institutional buildings (India built Afghanistan’s parliament), accords to train army and police officers, and other capacity building measures. It’s interest in the region is linked to Afghanistan emerging as an economic and energy link to Central Asia.

There has been concern in India in recent years on the lack of space accorded to it as far as Afghanistan is concerned, despite the country making clear that it has strategic interests in the country. This year, India was left out as the US and China co-convened a high level meeting on Afghanistan’s peaceful development and regional cooperation.Months of efforts by both Pakistan and the U.S. to ease out differences and bring China on board finally bore fruit, with the first-of-its-kind meet being held on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly.

In the chair were the Chief Executive of Afghanistan Abdullah Abdullah, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, and Afghan Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani. Those who participated in the talks were ministers from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Australia, Italy, Norway.Kazakhstan. Pakistan was represented by National Security Advisor Sartaj Aziz. There was no sign of India, clearly not even invited as a participant.

China has thus stepped in where India seems to have been afraid, or rather -- not allowed to tread. In that it has expanded its role from economic and financial assistance to a clearly strategic partnership, sitting on the same side of the table as the US on this issue. In the process that India, which seems to be happy with the “fondness” that the common Afghan reportedly has for Indians, seemed to be completely out of the picture as even two major competitors join hands to tackle the challenges posed by Afghanistan, and the fast deteriorating situation there.

China’s interest in Afghanistan shifted from the financial to the strategic about two years ago according to experts here. In fact the Wall Street Journal taking first note of the shift wrote: During Afghanistan’s tumultuous political transition last year, Chinese security officials began visiting Kabul regularly, and expressed concerns about militant havens, according to a former senior Afghan security official.

Franz-Michael Mellbin, the European Union envoy to Afghanistan, said he first noticed increased Chinese interest in Afghanistan in 2013. “They have been looking for an area to expand their foreign policy toolbox,” he said, “but also doing it in a way that would not be seen strategically threatening to the U.S.”

During an October conference on Afghanistan in Beijing, a Chinese general surprised some U.S. participants by suggesting the Pentagon inquire about a joint effort with China to train Afghan security forces, say people familiar with the matter.”

This was followed by a secret meeting of the Taliban in China in May this year, with the news being leaked at the time to the Wall Street Journal in the US. Top officials from Afghanistan and Pakistan were present at the meeting, that really became the turning point for full blown Chinese participation in the Afghan peace process. The US has been in close contact with Beijing with Secretary of State John Kerry speaking highly of the new found cooperation with China at the New York meeting. He went on to describe China “as a country that understands very deeply the cross currents in Afghanistan.”

Relations between China and Pakistan are close and strategic, leading to discomfort in New Delhi and also Washington, that the latter has clearly overcome. The Wall Street Journal quoted Hu Shisheng, an Afghanistan expert at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, a think tank linked to the Ministry of State Security saying that the training of Afghan forces outside Afghanistan by both US and China was seen as “feasible and realistic.” The two countries are jointly training diplomats as well.

Pakistan is supportive, with a foreign ministry statement from Islamabad maintaining earlier that the Sharif government will work closely with China to support the Afghan peace process. US media reports also suggest a lowering of tensions with senior officials being quoted as saying that they do not see China as a competitor to its relations with Afghanistan and Pakistan.

And where’s India in all this? Nowhere. With the anti-Pakistan rhetoric in India not bearing fruit, it makes political sense for the Modi government to reach out to the neighbouring country to gain a few brownie points on the foreign policy front… in terms of being the government that managed to improve ties with Pakistan, as well as pave the way for a greater (or so it is hoped) role in rebuilding Afghanistan.