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Tsunami relief should be led by U.N.
By Siddharth Varadarajan
NEW DELHI, JAN. 2. Stung by criticism that its initial response to the tsunami disaster had been “stingy,” the United States has moved swiftly to try and impose its “leadership” over the international relief effort underway.
When the United Nations Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Jan Egeland, used the `S’ word last week, Washington’s aid package for the region had just been upped from an initial $15 million to $35 million. By way of comparison, India, a poor country with more than 10,000 dead of its own to contend with, had immediately pledged $25 million in aid to Sri Lanka alone.
Even though it made a firm commitment to spend just $10 million more than India, the U.S. sought a larger profile by floating the idea of a “core group” of countries — consisting of itself, Australia, Japan and India — coordinating the provision of relief in areas worst hit by the disaster. In his weekly radio address, President George W. Bush said on January 1 that the U.S. was “leading an international coalition” to help with rehabilitation, adding, somewhat patronisingly, that India, Japan and Australia have “already pledged to help us coordinate these relief efforts.”
Japan had pledged $500 million and India at least $25 million; yet credit for the generosity of these two Asian countries was being attributed to U.S. leadership.
In any event, why such “leadership” was thought necessary when the U.N. had already swung into action in collaboration with the affected governments is a question that has not been answered by the U.S. or any of its `coalition’ allies, including India. New Delhi, which suspected that Washington was seeking to establish its leadership on the cheap, is anxious the efforts of the “core group” be dovetailed to those of the U.N. Yet it also seems to have been tempted by Washington’s offer of a place at a chimerical high table.
In any disaster of this magnitude, it is only the U.N. that can coordinate relief at the macro level while the affected government coordinates the disbursement of relief material and services at the micro level. Thus, there was no need for any “core group” to oversee the Indian Navy’s own overseas humanitarian efforts — such as the despatch of hospital ships to Sri Lanka and Banda Aceh in Indonesia.
Once it was clear that establishing a self-appointed core group was not giving it the leadership profile it desired, Washington abruptly increased its aid package to $350 million. And the U.S. Secretary of State, Colin Powell, sought to dispel the impression that Washington was undermining the U.N. relief effort by stressing during a press conference with Kofi Annan on December 31 that the U.S.-led “core group” intended mainly to support the U.N.
Two members of this “core group,” Australia and Japan, are Pacific powers that sit on the outer peripheries of Asia and are traditional military allies of the U.S. The Indian landmass, with the exception of the Maldives and Somalia, frames the western limit of the tsunami’s destructive path. Between these three corners lies the vast expanse of the Indian Ocean littoral that bore the brunt of last month’s natural disaster.
India is not quite a military ally of the U.S. but military exercises involving the two navies and air forces have established a degree of inter-operability that could be useful in disaster relief as well. The U.S. military has had more extensive interaction with the armed forces of Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore and the Philippines but Washington chose instead to link up with India. For this reason, the inclusion of New Delhi in Mr. Bush’s “core group” has generated some misplaced excitement amongst a section of foreign policy analysts.
Collaboration between militaries at times of natural disaster is expected even of adversaries, not to speak of close friends like India and the U.S. If there are specific humanitarian projects that require Indian and U.S. military assets to be operated side by side, no rational person would object. To the extent these joint efforts improve each side’s political understanding of the other, they may even generate positive externalities. India, however, needs to be wary about Washington cherry-picking the situations in, and the terms on, which it seeks engagement with New Delhi.
A multinational effort of this magnitude will be effective only when the world body is in charge of coordinating and directing relief. Countries such as the U.S. with considerable military assets in the region should place these at the disposal of the U.N. and deploy the same in close consultation with the governments concerned. That is why the multilateral relief summit called by Indonesia and the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) for January 6 is so important and deserves the fullest support of Asian powers such as China and India, even if Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is unable to attend because of the Pravasi Divas conference.
Beyond the seductive pull of a U.S.-led core group are other coalitions and initiatives which India needs to think about — which enhance Asia’s own economic and military capacity to respond to natural disasters and humanitarian tragedies. India is a major Asian power and it must lead from the front.
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