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Saturday, Jan. 15, 2005

Geopolitical jockeying leads to more aid


HONG KONG -- The outpouring of sympathy and support for survivors of the Dec. 26 tsunami continues around the world, providing striking testament to humanity's willingness to help each other in times of need.

On a different level, the responses also illustrate the geopolitical positioning of the world's political players, particularly in Asia. The political implications of the disaster -- and of the response of various countries -- were recognized early on.

U.S. President George W. Bush was urged to make a personal appearance to express his sympathy to the victims because, analysts said, such a move could help shape views of the United States in a region crucial to American interests. And so, on Dec. 29, the president appeared in public to discuss the tsunami disaster and American efforts to help its victims.

To some extent, the relief effort has turned into a bidding contest. After the U.S. pledged $350 million, Japan jumped in with $500 million. At the Jakarta summit Jan. 6, Australia pledged $760 million to Indonesia -- although only half of that is an outright grant, the other half being an interest-free loan.

Compared to these figures, China's donation seems small. China had originally pledged $63 million, but at the Jakarta conference, Premier Wen Jiabao added an additional $20 million, for a total of $83 million.

India, one of the countries struck by the tsunami, has refused to accept aid and instead has extended $23 million in aid to Sri Lanka. New Delhi, like Tokyo, is keen to enhance its global image in an attempt to win a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council.

Despite all the talk about China's replacing the U.S. in Asia, it is clear that Washington remains unrivaled in terms of power and influence in the region. For one thing, the U.S. was the only country that assumed a leadership role, announcing the formation -- for a while when it seemed like a good idea -- of a "core group" of countries, including Japan, India and Australia, to manage and coordinate the crisis.

The move immediately revived suspicions of unilateral behavior, as no other country -- certainly not China -- was capable of playing such a role. It is also significant that China was not chosen by the U.S. to be part of the core group, while two other Asian countries, Japan and India, were.

It is understandable that Washington would approach Tokyo, its wealthy ally, to play this role. But the fact that India was chosen for the core group over China may well have appeared, from China's standpoint, as a U.S. attempt to check China's influence in the region.

Unable to compete where the big bucks are concerned, China sought to burnish its image in a different way -- by underlining the fact that even though it remains a poor country it is still willing to do whatever is within its power to help its neighbors.

Moreover, aware of the U.N. complaint that pledged amounts often end up being much smaller on delivery, Premier Wen made a point: "The Chinese always mean what they say. Whatever promises we make will be honored. It was true, is true and will always remain true."

Thailand, for one, immediately accepted China's offer of help by asking Beijing to conduct DNA testing to identify some 2,500 victims of the tsunami. Because this task is well within the capability of Thai forensic specialists, there was speculation that Bangkok's move was motivated by "diplomatic concerns" -- to help China burnish its image -- rather than by practical need.

In Jakarta, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell ultimately announced the dissolution of the core group since the United Nations was "up and running." Even so, it was clear that the U.S. was reserving a key role for itself when Powell said the U.N. would play "a lead role, but not the only lead role," in coordinating relief.

The competition to provide help in this, the biggest humanitarian relief operation in history, is good, even if it is done partly with the idea of enhancing a particular country's image.

This is a welcome change from the time when European powers sought to carve out "spheres of influence" for themselves in Asia.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator.


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