NEW DELHI - As the international summit meeting to coordinate aid for the victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami opens in Jakarta on Thursday, various states are jockeying for political advantage in the region. Prominent among them are the United States, India, Japan and Australia, which have formed a self-nominated ''core group'' while bypassing the United Nations.
The Jakarta Summit, convened by the leaders of the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN), presents the U.S. with an opportunity to assert its global ''leadership'' -- albeit on the cheap, with an assistance offer of 350 million U.S. dollars, lower than Japan's commitment of 500 million U.S. dollars - and less than the funds collectively pledged by Europe.
Washington started with an offer of a measly 3.5 million U.S. dollars, a fraction of the 25 million U.S. dollars which India, with 9,500 dead of its own, offered to Sri Lanka. Stung by criticism by U.N.'s emergency relief coordinator Jan Egeland that it was being ''stingy'', it raised the amount first to 15 million U.S. dollars, then to 35 million U.S. dollars and later, ten times that sum.
'I think this initiative ... sounds like yet another attempt to undermine the U.N. when it is the best system we have got and the one that needs building up.
former UK International Development Secretary Clare Short
More important than the money, the U.S. has mobilized two aircraft carrier-groups, with a total of 12 ships and 41 helicopters, besides many more fixed-wing warplanes for relief work in South-east Asia. One of them, the USS Abraham Lincoln, was the same carrier from which President George W. Bush had triumphantly announced victory in the war in Iraq in 2003.
As Sri Lankan political scientist Jayadeva Uyangoda puts it: ''Humanitarian (aid) is not purely humanitarian'', but might represent an opportunity for Bush to ''get a foothold in Sri Lanka... There is no innocence in the politics of humanitarian assistance.''
The relief operation certainly offers Bush a chance to earn some goodwill after the globally unpopular occupation of Iraq and Washington's political isolation because of its Middle East policy.
Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis told 'The New York Times': ''This represents an opportunity to try to move beyond the frustration of Iraq and pre-emption and his tensions with the Islamic world. It is an example of an area where the US... can work in a cause that no one can argue with.''
The U.S. move to launch the four-member ''core group'' has drawn criticism within Europe. The French media has accused Washington of supplanting and sidelining the United Nations.
In Britain, former International Development Secretary Clare Short said: ''I think this initiative ... sounds like yet another attempt to undermine the U.N. when it is the best system we have got and the one that needs building up.''
India's decision to join the ''core group'' has drawn flak from within the country too.
''This is a clear departure from New Delhi's long-established stand for multilateralism and working with the U.N. system,'' says Achin Vanaik, professor of political science at the University of Delhi. ''It also violates the pledge made by the eight month-old Manmohan Singh government to work for a multipolar world.''
Equally controversial is India's decision to reject foreign aid for the victims of the tsunami, which has wrought extensive damage in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and claimed nearly 9,000 lives in the southern states. In the past, India would welcome external aid - as with the devastating Gujarat earthquake of 2001 and the Orissa cyclone five years ago.
By turning down offers of assistance of the order of 1.5 billion U.S. dollars for the tsunami victims, New Delhi has sent out the signal that India has ''graduated'' from its long-standing status as an aid recipient to a donor.
Apart from money, it has sent 1,000 military personnel, 13 naval vessels, including a hospital ship, a field hospital and six helicopters to Sri Lanka, Maldives and Indonesia and is coordinating its operations with other ''core group'' members.
Underlying these moves is India's attempt to consolidate its ''strategic partnership'' with the U.S. and its two close allies in Asia/Oceania - Japan, which hosts 134 U.S. bases, and Australia, known for its loyalty to Washington since the Vietnam War. This is a major step for formerly non-aligned India.
Several geopolitical calculations have driven this decision. India would like to outmaneuver and contain China, which has pledged 63 million U.S. dollars to the tsunami victims.
Beijing also sent search and rescue teams to South-east Asia, but it has fought shy of drafting its navy in a big way in the aid operation although it has the second largest amphibious force in the region (after the U.S. Seventh Fleet), and in particular 11 Yutang class ships capable of delivering large amounts of material to tsunami-battered shorelines.
At another level, the Indian decision to become an aid-donor is guided by a larger purpose: to promote an image of India as an emerging regional, and even world power, which can rightfully demand a place at the globe's 'High Table'. India recently stepped up its campaign to win a permanent seat in the U.N. Security Council.
India's inclusion in the U.S.-sponsored ''core group'' has pleased many of New Delhi's policy-makers. To them, it signifies the ''great importance'' that Washington now attaches to India, as U.S. ambassador David Mulford declared on Tuesday.
Earlier, for over a decade, India promoted the idea of an Indian Ocean Rim grouping of countries, from the Persian Gulf to South-east Asia, as a regional platform autonomous of the great powers. Now, New Delhi is content to be a junior partner of Washington.
India's projection of itself as an aid-donor is fraught. This means that the government in rejecting foreign assistance although it cannot fully look after its own citizens' urgent needs. Relief provision in many tsunami-devastated regions of India is inadequate.
Scores of villages in the south lack access to fuel, cooking pots, sanitation, medical supplies and health professionals. In the devastated Andamans, there is an acute scarcity of drinking water (the coral islands have little groundwater) and many islands are cut off altogether.
Last week, a group of starving survivors in the Nicobar Islands kidnapped government officials to protest against poor relief provision.
Many Indians would question the morality of rejecting external assistance when their government cannot guarantee a minimally decent life to its citizens, and half the country's children are malnourished.
''This is a strange notion of sovereignty, divorced from the people in whom the sovereignty rests,'' argues Vanaik. ''It has more to do with delusions of grandeur and an elitist search for symbols of glory.''
Ironically, India's relief initiative in its neighborhood could prove counter-productive. If it is intended more as power projection than humanitarian aid, it is likely to provoke resentment and charges of a Big Brotherly attitude.
India went through a muscle-flexing phase in the late 1980s, when it intervened militarily in Sri Lanka and the Maldives. The Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF) expedition in Sri Lanka produced a military and political disaster. New Delhi alienated all the parties to the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict. The Indian ambassador to Sri Lanka, Jyotindra Nath Dixit (who as India's national security adviser died on Monday), earned the epithet ''Viceroy''.
This time too, India risks being considered arrogant and overwhelming towards its neighbors, the more so because it is allied with the United States. Successful geopolitics is one thing. Good neighborly relations are quite another.
© Copyright 2005 IPS - Inter Press Service