Monday, October 30, 2017

Modi courts the Italian connection

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is at his best on the world stage — and the visit to New Delhi of his Italian opposite number, Paolo Gentiloni — the first by an Italian leader in a decade — has been a welcome chance to shine at home.

In this case, the event has been more than a friendship exercise. Relations between the countries were strained by an incident off the Kerala coast five years ago in which two marines on board the oil tanker, Enrica Lexie, were arrested for killing two Indian fishermen.

Following the shooting the Indian coastguard chased down the vessel and the marines were taken into custody.

At a time when piracy and ship hijackings were prevalent, it was claimed the two men, Latorre Massimiliano and Salvatore Girone, had mistaken the fishermen’s vessel for a terrorist boat.

The situation was complicated by the Italian claim that as the incident occurred on the high seas, the marines could be judged only by the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea and that as the marines were on official duty they held diplomatic immunity.

India disputes both positions but after a protracted wrangle allowed the men to return to Italy pending a ruling from the Court of Arbitration at The Hague which both countries are still awaiting.

However, that was then and this is now, and both leaders have good reasons to put the past behind them, at least for this visit. Italy is India’s fifth largest trading partner in the European Union with bilateral trade totalling in excess of $US8.5 billion.

In addition more than 600 Italian companies have a presence in India, while Italy’s Indian community totals about 180,000, the third largest behind that of the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.

Both countries believe these ties can be strengthened to their mutual benefit and during the visit a number of agreements have been signed on a range of issues including railways, security, energy and investment.

As one senior Indian official said, there is a realisation that past differences had resulted in missed opportunities.

“The relationship should not be held hostage…there is a strong desire on the part of the Government that while [the issue of the marines] needs to be resolved, it can be dealt with separately,” the official said.  

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