January 02, 2005

Tsunami : Indian Geo-Political Concerns

NEW DELHI: Within hours of the tsunami, India geared
up for its biggest-ever relief operation, but not just
with its own devastated coasts in its sights.


As New Delhi launched a relief effort along the
eastern coast, ten warships -- backed by helicopters
and transport aircraft and loaded with relief supplies
-- also headed for Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Maldives,
three neighbours badly hit in one of world's worst
natural disasters.

A country campaigning for a permanent seat on the UN
Security Council, India refused to portray itself as a
helpless victim.

"India has been trying to convey the image that it is
a regional power, and a credible power in terms of
having the ability to step in when required," said
Uday Bhaskar of the Institute for Defence Studies and
Analyses.

"Both these objectives are met with the current
deployment."

When US President George W Bush telephoned Prime
Minister Manmohan Singh, he was politely told thanks
but no thanks: American help was not required. Other
foreign governments got the same message.

Instead, New Delhi is sending $23 million worth of
relief and cash to Sri Lanka, help to the Maldives and
even a $500,000 package for Thailand, a richer country
with fewer victims.

Indian commentators like Bhaskar credit the government
with a spontaneous humanitarian response to a terrible
tragedy.

Officials of the world's fourth largest military say
that also involved in the quick response was a
conscious decision to build goodwill with neighbours
like Sri Lanka, with which New Delhi has at times had
strained ties.

The need to jump in before its local rivals got in on
the act seems to have sharpened that desire.

"Obviously, also, we don't want the Pakistanis to come
in a significant way," one said. Pakistan and India
have fought three wars, two of them over the disputed
region of Kashmir.

The Navy sent frigates, patrol boats and hospital
ships to its neighbours, loaded with equipment,
medicine, food and shelter, while the Air Force has
flown in an Army field hospital, military medical
teams and Navy divers.


The government has also mounted a major aid effort
along its own eastern coast, and has not been too
proud to call in help from the United Nations.

The national death toll from Sunday's tsunami,
triggered by an earthquake off the Indonesian island
of Sumatra, is nearly 14,500 dead or feared dead.

Some aid workers and diplomats say that India's
response to the disaster in its Andaman and Nicobar
islands has been anything but exemplary.

Foreign and Indian aid workers say they have been
granted little or no access to the strategically vital
and militarily sensitive Nicobar group, where
thousands of people are thought to have died and help
has been slow to come for those who survived.

The military has mounted its own aid operation , but a
few more Air Force helicopters -- and some civilian
expertise -- could go a long way in the archipelago,
1,200 km miles off India's coast close to Myanmar and
Indonesia, aid workers say.

Within days of the tragedy India joined the United
States, Japan and Australia in a four-nation core
group coordinating the relief effort.

Foreign affairs expert C Raja Mohan says the move
represents a welcome shift towards closer cooperation
within the region and with the United States.

"It is the first time India has worked with a great
power on a collective regional security issue," he
said.

"What we are seeing is the emergence of an India
willing to take a lot more regional responsibility ...
and it is not trying to do this by keeping others
out."

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