By Sanjeev Miglani
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - When Afghan President Ashraf Ghani makes his first official visit to India next week, it will be a chance for New Delhi to regain ground lost to regional rivals Pakistan and China and push interests including trade routes and arms sales.
More than his predecessor Hamid Karzai, Ghani has reached out to neighboring Pakistan to help negotiate a settlement with Taliban insurgents and to China to add clout to the fragile peace process as well as to invest in the Afghan economy.
That has left India as an also-ran during the first seven months of Ghani's tenure, and talk of a strategic partnership with Afghanistan including significant sales of military equipment during Karzai's frequent visits has faded to silence.
China's emerging role in Afghanistan, and its announcement this week of $46 billion of investment in India's neighbor and nuclear-armed rival Pakistan, have heightened the sense that India could lose influence in South Asia, experts said.
"China's footprint to our west will continue to grow bigger as it seeks access to the waters of the Arabian Sea through Pakistan, the energy resources of Iran and the mineral resources of Afghanistan," said Vikram Sood, former head of India's external spy agency and an influential South Asia strategist.
Earlier this month, India delivered three light helicopters to Afghanistan, Indian and Afghan sources said, a small deal that came three years late and was a far cry from Karzai's requests in 2013 that included field guns and battle tanks.
"There was a shopping list, the expectation was it would be delivered," said a source with direct knowledge of the security cooperation between the two countries, who was not authorized to speak to the press.
"There were several opportunities, even the new government in Delhi had opportunities. But they didn't act on it."
Ghani, who has already visited China, Pakistan and the United States, will be in India on April 27 and 28 and will meet, among others, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who came to power last May.
According to an Indian government official, on the leaders' agenda will be to discuss final approval of a tripartite transit agreement involving India, Afghanistan and Iran centered around the Iranian port of Chabahar.
India's access to landlocked Afghanistan, and potentially on to Central Asia, Russia, and Europe, is either through Pakistan, which is not seen as feasible given their mutual suspicion, or via Iran and northwards by land.
Again, India has been accused of dragging its feet.
"We are trying to take the steps, but ... Indians are very patient people, sometimes more than enough," said a source privy to the negotiations on the port project.
"It is very obvious that Chabahar is even more important for India than for Iranians. Strategically for India, you can access Afghanistan, Central Asia, (on) to the Caucasus, to Russians, to Turks, to North Europe."
Meanwhile, China marched on this week with the launch, during President Xi Jinping's visit to Pakistan, of projects including an economic corridor between Pakistan's Gwadar port in the Arabian Sea and China's western Xinjiang province.
"Indian officials strongly resist the idea that Pakistan should have veto power over its regional role," said Alyssa Ayres, former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asia.
"That sentiment has been magnified as China becomes more active in Afghanistan. India does not want China to displace India's influence in its own region."
Some experts believe India's loss of influence in Afghanistan will be temporary, however, given strained relations between Kabul and Islamabad in recent decades, especially over cracking down on militants hiding along their mutual border.
"Soon the strategic partnership between Afghanistan and India will be back to normal," said retired Indian army brigadier Gurmeet Kanwal, a former head of the government-funded Centre for Land Warfare Studies in New Delhi.
"India will then resume military aid at Afghanistan's request."
(Additional reporting by Frank Jack Daniel and Nidhi Verma; Editing by Mike Collett-White)