Admiral Wu Shengli, China’s Navy Chief, this week caught Indian officials off guard by asking for an impromptu tour of the most sensitive nerve centre of the advanced Indian missile frigate, INS Shivalik, while on a brief courtesy call on the visiting ship.

The Shivalik arrived at this eastern port city, which is the base of the PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) North Sea Fleet, on Sunday to take part in exercises on Wednesday to mark the Chinese Navy’s 65th anniversary.

Indian officials told Admiral Wu that the ship’s operations room — the Combat Information Centre — was among the Indian Navy’s most advanced and was kept locked when the frigate was docked at harbour. Under standard operating procedures, it cannot be opened without exception.

The Admiral’s request surprised Indian officials as navy officials usually follow an unwritten protocol for visiting ships and refrain from asking to see areas regarded as sensitive. That the request came amid a goodwill visit aimed at boosting trust put officials in an awkward situation: they did not want any incident casting a shadow on maritime exercises that were described as positive and the most high-level ever between the navies.

Fortunately, sources said, the frigate’s Commanding Officer, the experienced Captain Puruvir Das, deftly handled the situation. He stood his ground and told the Admiral that operating procedures meant that the CIC had to remain closed at harbour with no exceptions, but told him that he would be welcome to visit the ship at sea during exercises, an unlikely prospect for China’s Navy Chief.

Notwithstanding the Admiral’s unexpected request, officials said the Shivalik visit would go a long way in boosting trust between the navies. Captain Das said “the exercises went very well,” but did not comment on Admiral Wu’s request. “There were no problems, despite the language barrier,” he said. “This was the highest engagement we have had so far with the Chinese Navy. But we do not want to stop at this and every year the level should go higher and higher.”

Mock hijack

In a three-way exercise involving China and Indonesia simulating an anti-hijack operation, the Shivalik deployed its Chetak helicopter as its crew raided the “hijacked” vessel.

The drill was the most advanced of three different exercises held on Wednesday. Seven countries were invited by China for the drills, including Bangladesh, Pakistan, Singapore and Brunei. The drill marked a rare instance of Indian and Pakistani ships at the same exercises, although they did not come into contact as they were involved in different drills.