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India shifts regional geopolitical cards

India shifts regional geopolitical cards

Author: Marwaan Macan-Markar
Publication: Asia Times
Date: January 27, 2005
URL: http://www.atimes.com/atimes/South_Asia/GA27Df04.html

Within a month of the tsunamis battering 12 countries across South and Southeast Asia, together with East Africa, India has gained a new political foothold in the Indian Ocean region.

Nothing captures this emerging climate better than the reception extended to India, itself a victim of the December 26 tsunami, from Sri Lanka. This week, an Indian naval medical team was given a rousing farewell as it left the port town of Trincomalee, in northeast Sri Lanka, after completing its mission of mercy.

Elsewhere across the South Asian island similar scenes of gratitude are being enacted to thank the large contingent of Indian military and naval personnel who began arriving in Sri Lanka hours after the tsunami struck as part of New Delhi's "Operation Rainbow".

"Indian assistance has had a tremendous impact across Sri Lanka," Iqbal Athas, a senior defense analyst at the Sunday Times, a Sri Lankan English-language weekly, told IPS. "People are thanking them for coming to the country's rescue despite India also being affected."

But India's tsunami assistance rendered to its immediate neighbors can also be viewed as going beyond the humanitarian dimension. "India's willingness to help Sri Lanka and the Maldives clearly indicates that New Delhi takes an active interest in the region," Betram Bastiampillai, former professor of history and political science at Colombo University, said in an interview.

From the geopolitical front, New Delhi's helping hand also virtually put a stop to possible challenges from other contenders for power and influence in the region, such as China and the United States, at a time of crisis. "India's actions were also pursued to prevent other countries trying to step in ahead of her in an area that comes under its sphere of influence," Bastiampillai added.

India's commitment to help Sri Lanka - which has the second highest death toll from the natural disaster, with close to 38,000 deaths - has not been limited to aid in the form of assistance from its military and navy, supported by ships, aircraft and helicopters. New Delhi has also pledged US$23 million to help rebuild the South Asian island's coastal areas.

The collective impact of such goodwill has washed away the bitterness that lingered as a result of the two previous Indian interventions in Sri Lanka over the past two decades. The first was in June 1987, when five Indian military transport planes dropped 25 tonnes of relief over the north city of Jaffna. The aid was for the beleaguered Tamil population under siege following an assault mounted by Sri Lankan forces against the Tamil Tiger rebels, who had the northern city under their command.

Soon after, relations between New Delhi and Colombo plummeted to an all-time low, with leading voices of Sri Lanka's then political establishment lashing out at India, accusing it of being the region's bully. Then came the humiliating end to the Indian military's two-and-a-half years stay in Sri Lanka as part of an accord signed between New Delhi and Colombo in July 1987. The Indo-Sri Lanka pact was meant to usher in peace on the islands northern and eastern provinces - the areas where the Tamil Tiger rebels were waging a separatist war to carve out a Tamil state.

But the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) was soon set on by the Tamil Tiger rebels, resulting in the death of over 1,500 Indian soldiers and with nearly 3,000 injured. The Sri Lankan government at the time added to India's misery by ordering the IPKF out of the country's shores rather than thanking the Indians for their assistance.

"The past tensions have been overcome by what has followed the tsunami," said defense analyst Athas. "India and Sri Lanka have forged new, close bonds. There is a new respect for India."

India's stature in the region has gained in magnitude due to another tsunami-related policy - namely New Delhi's reluctance to accept foreign aid to help its devastated south-eastern coast, where nearly 9,000 people died due to the killer waves. The Indian government has taken on the burden of footing the entire disaster relief bill, estimated at over $575 million.

Of the 12 tsunami affected countries, only Thailand, where over 5,300 people died, ranks with India in turning away direct foreign aid for relief efforts. Bangkok's decision was rooted in the self-confidence and pride of being able to manage its own affairs, as was reflected by New Delhi.

The diplomatic edge India has gained by aiding Sri Lanka and the Maldives has also come in the way of US forces being showered with all the praise for their relief efforts in Sri Lanka and the region's worst hit country, Indonesia, where over 200,000 people died due to the tsunami.

In fact, an Indian news magazine reveals that New Delhi's prompt response to be the first to send relief to Sri Lanka was largely to preempt Washington stealing a march over India in its own backyard. "The decision to deploy relief ships was hastened by reports of a possible large-scale US deployment in the region," writes Saikat Datta, in the latest issue of Outlook. "The Indian response was in tune with its stated policy of looking after its strategic interests in the Indian Ocean region," added Datta.

And in doing so, the South Asian nation has achieved a milestone. According to analysts, India's foreign relief efforts were the largest since the country gained independence in 1947.

(Inter Press Service)

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