The Tsunami and Aid Diplomacy of India

Surjeet Singh Panwar

The unprecedented destruction caused by Tsunami waves on December 26 last year, is not only a rare phenomenon for Indian Ocean countries, but it is also unique as it witnessed intense diplomatic maneuvering in the name of aid. The aid flowing from donor countries carry not only humanitarian assistance but are also seen as a diplomatic tool used to further their foreign policy objectives. The first move in this regard was made by India while coping with the disaster on its eastern shores. It is interesting to note that despite suffering loss of almost 15,000 lives and need for Rs. 7,500 crores for relief and reconstruction, India not only declined to accept any foreign assistance for relief efforts at home but was first to deploy huge resources in the affected neighborhood. In the words of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh: “several countries had offered assistance, but […] we have enough resources and would be happy to receive assistance when needed.” Indian’s stand was largely criticized in the west and was seen as the India’s aspiration to be recognized as a regional power and a claimant for permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).

India’s aid diplomacy began with the most affected southern neighbors, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. One thousand Indian relief personnel and five naval ships were dispatched to Trincomalee, Galle and Colombo with medical teams and relief material. Indian Air Force and naval helicopters ferried provisions like packed food, medicines and drinking water to remote areas and undertook rescue operations in affected areas in Sri Lanka. Two field hospitals were also established in Galle and Colombo. The Government of India decided to provide an assistance of Rs. 100 crores ($25 million) for the relief and rehabilitation of Sri Lanka’s tsunami victims. India has been successful in generating goodwill for itself in Sri Lanka by sending help days before any other assistance reached the island country.

The Indian Navy and the Coast Guard undertook relief operations in Maldives. Apart from conducting aerial surveys to search for the survivors, India also provided relief materials. The Indian government has offered an assistance of Rs. 5 crores to Maldives. India has also extended its supportive hands to the South East Asian countries.

In Indonesia, Indian ships offloaded emergency rations, medicines, tents and first-aid kits worth $1 million and established two field hospitals in the worst hit area of Aceh. New Delhi India has also proposed extending “concessional lines of credit” to Indonesia for the “ reconstruction of roads, buildings and harbors” in Aceh province. Similarly, India has offered Thailand a package of “assistance in kind” of the order of $500,000 to supplement the kingdom’s ongoing relief efforts in the tsunami-hit areas. Supply of medicines and the deployment of medical professionals and forensic experts are being discussed with the Thai authorities.

Taking note of India’s prompt action in the neighborhood, the United States invited India to the four-nation “core group” along with United States, Japan and Australia. This gave rise to speculation that India had been co-opted into an “aid coalition” that attempted to usurp the leadership role of the United Nations in disaster relief in favor of the U.S. On the other hand, New Delhi in a rare display of statesmanship suggested to the U.S. that the “core group” could supplement Indian initiatives as India had already moved ahead. India apprehending that Washington was seeking to establish its leadership is anxious that the efforts of the “core group” be dovetailed to those of the U.N.

In a way, Indian diplomacy did bear fruits as it was invited by the ASEAN for Jakarta donors’ meet on January 6 and U.N. sponsored international donors’ conference in Geneva on January 11. Simultaneously, the United Nations’ role of directing and coordinating the relief and reconstruction efforts has been recognized. It is quite clear that India has emerged as a compassionate regional power.

New Delhi's latest message to the international community undoubtedly enhanced its posture as self-reliant nation without ‘aid seeking mentality’. It is rightly observed that the refusal of aid is a gentle reminder of its great potential. “New Delhi's role in the relief operation has been noticed internationally,” observed visiting U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist recently while underscoring the statement with what he had learnt from the leadership in Sri Lanka. Nevertheless, the assistance and help that has been put forward by India to other affected countries should not be seen as a mere display of future diplomatic ambitions, rather should be regarded as act of a responsible nation.

Author Note
Surjeet Singh Panwar, Ph.D. Scholar, School of International Studies, JNU, New Delhi