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Lovers’ Day tryst for navy chiefs, Pak coy

New Delhi, Feb. 11: Pakistan is playing yes-no-yes again for a Valentine’s Day tryst of navy chiefs hosted by India.

The Indian Ocean Naval Symposium - IONS - is the first effort by India to create a conclave of navy chiefs of countries from the Malacca Straits in the east to the Persian Gulf in the west.

In a rare show of goodwill, the Indian government asked its navy to break from a tradition in which Pakistan was almost never invited to an international military meet hosted by New Delhi.

Admiral Sureesh Mehta, India’s chief of naval staff, went ahead and invited his Pakistani counterpart, Admiral M. Afzal Tahir, to participate in the conclave that is part of the symposium.

India expects to turn the conclave into an annual event.

Till Thursday last week, an Indian navy source said, Pakistan had intimated that it was interested but its chief would not be able to make it to New Delhi and for a retreat to Goa.

The hosts prepared for a high commission-delegated official to take part. He would obviously not be a member of the chiefs’ conclave.

But today, the Indian Navy was given information that a three-star (vice-admiral equivalent) ranked official would indeed be sent to New Delhi to represent the Pakistan naval chief. In that case, he would be a member of the conclave.

Last year, too, India had made a show of goodwill when its air force invited the Pakistan Air Force to send a representative to an international flight safety conference. Defence minister A.K. Antony felicitated the air attaché who was deputed to attend by the Pakistan high commission.

The Indian Navy is making an extra effort to dispel the suspicion that the IONS - modelled on the lines of the West Pacific Naval Symposium initiated primarily by the US - is a ploy to stamp India’s strategic authority in the Indian Ocean Region. The timing of the symposium is also apt for a gathering of such senior military officials because Defexpo 2008, India’s biggest arms trade fair, is to start two days after the conclave.

“In recognition of the centrality of ‘constructive engagement’ as the primary means of achieving and assuring mutually beneficial maritime security, stability, safety, and consequent collective prosperity amongst all littoral states of the Indian Ocean Region, the Indian Navy is privileged to host the inaugural event of a newly launched cooperative, consultative and inclusive regional initiative, entitled the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium,” the Indian Navy officially states.

It is coincidental that events on Valentine’s Day have proved to be significant for the Indian Navy in the recent past. Two years back, the navy’s only carrier, the INS Viraat, and the American carrier USS Ronald Reagan set up an appointment in the high seas off Sri Lanka at short notice. The exercise that followed set the tone for US President George Bush’s visit the following month.

The Viraat-Reagan meet in the Indian Ocean is also cited by the navies of India and the US as an example of their “interoperability” and the ability to work jointly with little advance planning.

Indian Navy sources said the chiefs (or their representatives) of 27 navies have confirmed participation at the conclave. Among them are a five-star admiral from France (which has an Indian Ocean territory in Reunion Island) and the chief of the Australian navy.

Iran has not responded to the invitation. Somalia was not asked because of doubts over the status of its government following internal strife in the African nation. Comoros backed out after confirming at first.

The US is not invited but is sending a delegation to the symposium - not participating in the chief’s conclave. Rear Admiral J.L. Shuford, president of the US Naval War College, heads the delegation and will speak on “harnessing technology for maritime cooperation” in a session on “synergy through maritime cooperative approaches”.

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