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India makes diplomatic advance

By refusing foreign relief, India has conveyed to the world it is a regional and a credible power, say experts.
PTI | By Reuters, New Delhi
PUBLISHED ON JAN 03, 2005 01:20 PM IST

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 Analysis.

"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.

The Indian 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 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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