Italian army chief praises his Pakistani counterpart: Why India should be worried

There may be more to the gratitude expressed by Italian Chief of Defence Forces General Claudio Graziano to Pakistani counterpart General Raheel Sharif, for the Pakistani Army’s "sacrifices/role in securing the region", than meets the eye.  While the degree of regional security is up for debate, particularly with the Pakistani Army continuing to violate the ceasefire on the India-Pakistan border, the meeting in Italy was in itself hardly peculiar, coming as it did a little over eight months since the last one in Rawalpindi.

It is, however, the timing of these strange remarks that raises concerns. Sharif and Graziano met barely a fortnight before the ITLOS public hearing of the case between India and Italy—to decide the fate of the two Italian marines detained by India for allegedly killing two of its fishermen in February 2012—is scheduled to take place in Hamburg. On one hand, the statement is an acknowledgment of the arguable success of Pakistan’s Operation Zarb-e-Azb against the Taliban, and on the other, it appears to be a way to put pressure on India ahead of the hearing.

The case against the two marines could be affected. PTI Image

The case against the two marines could be affected. PTI Image

The killing of St Antony crewmembers Ajesh Binki and Valentine, allegedly by Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone, marines aboard the Italian-flagged commercial oil-tanker MT Enrica Lexie, has in the past three years led to a deterioration of India-Italy bilateral relations. During this time, India cancelled a $770 million deal to purchase helicopters from Italian manufacturer Finmeccanica, which contributed to the souring of bilateral relations.

Former Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini, appointed as the European Union’s foreign policy chief late last year, also pointed out that this diplomatic fallout could percolate into India-EU relations. Considering Mogherini’s vitriolic statements in the past, it is not entirely unimaginable that the cancellation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Brussels in May, was related to the marines issue.

So what’s next? Italy and Pakistan, which have been united in their opposition to the expansion of permanent membership in the UN Security Council, signed a Strategic Engagement Plan, an agreement to deepen cooperation in security and defence among other areas, in February 2013. Meanwhile, India remains confident that the tribunal has no jurisdiction over offences occurring within the country.

The implications on India-Italy relations, if any, of the bonhomie between Graziano and Sharif remain to be seen. The August 10 hearing can provide some clarity in this regard.

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Updated Date: Jul 29, 2015 16:20:48 IST

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