India and Italy likely to announce defence agreement during Meloni visit

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India and Italy are expected to put nearly a decade of tensions over the arrest of Italian marines and other issues firmly behind them with discussions about a bilateral defence cooperation that is likely to be announced during Italian Prime Minister Georgia Meloni’s visit to India.

 

Ms. Meloni, the far-right Italian leader who is travelling to Delhi as chief guest of the Raisina Dialogue conference on March 2, will meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi, three months after they met on the sidelines of the G-20 conference in Bali.

 

“A general agreement on bilateral cooperation in the defence sector [is being discussed],” a diplomatic source confirmed to The Hindu, adding that if talks do not conclude during Ms. Meloni’s visit in March, the agreement will be ready for signing during her next visit to India in September for the G-20 summit.

 

Last week, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh held talks with Italian State Secretary for Defence Matteo Perego Di Cremnago in Bengaluru on the sidelines of the Aero India show, the first such visit in several years.

 

Indo-Pacific strategy

Ms. Meloni will be the third Italian Prime Minister to visit India in the past decade after Paolo Gentiloni in 2017 and Giuseppe Conte in 2018, but the defence agreement, which is also tied closely to Italy’s Indo-Pacific strategy, will be a first.

 

“The last few years have seen a continuous effort being made by both sides to put the ghosts of Augusta Westland and Leonardo behind them and to concentrate on make in India efforts for which Italian companies have been willing partners,” said former Indian Ambassador to Italy Anil Wadhwa.

 

“ The decidedly variant views of the Meloni government in the Ukraine-Russia conflict will make this visit to India an interesting one and her message at the Raisina dialogue will be listened to with great interest,” he added.

 

Significantly, during 2012-2015, when Italy-India ties nosedived over the arrest of two Italian marines for the killing of Kerala fisherman off the Indian coast, Ms. Meloni and her party, Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy), had taken a hard line, calling for the Indian Ambassador to be expelled over the issue. In 2015, Italy also vetoed India’s application to join the exclusive club of countries in the Missile Technology Control Regime, and lobbied for India to be designated a human rights violator at the European Parliament.

 

Subsequently, the Modi government decided to send the marines back to Italy, and the case was resolved mutually at the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which declared that the marines had immunity when they shot at the Indian fishermen and not under Indian jurisdiction, and India chose not to appeal the verdict.

 

Defence cooperation

In addition, the controversy surrounding the Agusta Westland VVIP helicopter deal disrupted bilateral relations as well as defence cooperation for several years. Even so, Italy remained involved in India’s defence industry in some ways.

 

For instance, Fincantieri of Italy is the know-how provider for technology upgrade and capability enhancement for India’s first indigenous aircraft carrier project, INS Vikrant, which was commissioned last September.

 

In November 2021, days after Mr. Modi’s meeting with then Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi on the sidelines of the G-20 meeting in Rome, the Defence Ministry decided to lift the ban on Italian defence company Leonardo involved in the VVIP helicopter deal.

 

The Indian Navy’s French-origin Scorpene-class conventional submarines are still without ‘heavy-weight torpedoes’ after Leonardo was blacklisted.

 

The two countries also have a Military Cooperation Group (MCG), a forum established to boost defence cooperation between the two countries through regular talks at the strategic and operational levels between Headquarters, Integrated Defence Staff and the Joint Staff HQ of Italian Armed Forces. The 11th MCG meeting was held in June 2022 in New Delhi.

 

India and Italy are also engaged in multilateral fora in the Indian Ocean Region and Indo-Pacific. Last year, the Indian Navy joined the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF), a Bahrain-based, U.S.-led multilateral construct, as an associate partner.

 

Italy is also a dialogue partner of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) Dialogue Partner since 2019, working on capacity-building initiatives in the sectors of sustainable navigation, fisheries and aquaculture, blue technologies and cruise tourism.

 

Italy is also evaluating the possibility of sending an International Liaison Partner at the Indian Navy’s Information Fusion Centre for Indian Ocean Region (IFC-IOR), which also hosts several Liaison Officers and has emerged as a centre for maritime domain awareness in the region, officials said.

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