Tsunami early political warning system

6th January 2005, Comments 0 comments

There is no doubting the heart-felt compassion shown by people around the world to the horrors created by the Indian Ocean tsunami. But Andrew McCathie argues that what is also at stake for many governments are vital political, economic and strategic interests in Asia.

The shaky amateur videos and graphic accounts from those on the ground have painted a harrowing picture of how huge waves generated by an earthquake beneath the Indian Ocean turned large slabs of magnificent coastal stretches into something akin to Hiroshima after the bomb.

But the tales of survival and loss are starting to slowly disappear from the news coverage of the Indian Ocean tsunami as the tragedy gains a new political dimension in the wake of moves by governments around the world to try to place their own mark on the relief efforts in the devastated region, and as a result focusing on the political calculations behind the aid.

Or more to the point, it raises the risk that the real areas of need might simply be forgotten.

Certainly, the scale of the aid that has been pledged by both national governments and ordinary people for helping the victims of the earthquake and its horrendous aftermath has measured up to the magnitude of the disaster.

However, as many in other parts of the world have discovered, government aid can often come with strings attached.

With the German government now offering aid totalling EUR 500 million, Berlin has become one of the biggest national donors to help a disaster that has shaken the disparate worlds of global tourism and often poor coastal village life.

But unlike several of his counterparts, such as the British and Swedish leaders, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has once again demonstrated his considerable political skills in dealing with the implications of the tsunami disaster for Germany, breaking off his Christmas vacation to return to Berlin as the horror of the disaster began to emerge.

Disaster diplomacy: what governments do now could be felt well into the future

At last count, Germany has 60 confirmed deaths – the highest in Europe – and about 1,000 still missing as a result of the tsunamis that  pulverised coastal areas of Asia that have become extremely popular with German tourists and expats.

Several German celebrities and sporting stars have also been caught up in the catastrophe, with former Chancellor Helmut Kohl narrowly escaping the tsunami waves as they rushed passed his Sri Lankan hotel.   

Of course, Schroeder has also learnt the political ramifications of natural calamities from a home-grown disaster when big floods swept through large areas of eastern Germany in 2002, just a matter of months before the nation went to the polls.

Schroeder's adept handling of the crisis helped him to shore up support for his Social Democrat-led government in the former communist east ahead of what was a very tight election race.

Other governments also seem to be learning similar lessons from the Indian Ocean tsunamis, with Washington clearly hoping that a big commitment of aid and a high profile in the relief operation might help to reverse the US's current poor standing in Asia.

This is particularly the case in Indonesia. Relations between Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country, and the US have been strained in recent years, partly because of the Washington-led war in Iraq.

The same can be said for Australia, with Canberra's big aid package directed solely at Indonesia and consequently helping to assuage the historically prickly ties between the two neighbouring countries. 

*quote1*The size of governments' aid commitments to the disaster area is also a reflection of the heart-felt compassion felt by people around the world as the enormity of the disaster around the Indian Ocean coastal rim began to unfold.  

But the tsunami has also underscored the principles of disaster diplomacy, where the implications of what governments do now to assist will be felt well into the future and where lending a helping hand now means that tensions of the past might be largely forgotten. 

Indeed, Washington is now turning on an impressive display of its impressive resources as part of an effort to sharpen up its disaster diplomacy in the region.  

With this in mind, there appears to be another key issue behind the drive by many governments to earmark large amounts of aid and to help out with the relief effort in tsunami-hit areas.

What is also at stake for many governments is ensuring a role – if not a commanding role – in a region that is vital to their political, economic and strategic interests and which represents key parts of their spheres of influence. This is certainly the case with Washington.

However, it is also noteworthy that Japan, which has been facing a major challenge to its pre-eminent Asian position from China, has emerged as one of the major contributors to the tsunami disaster relief.

To an extent, something similar could be said about Germany, with industry from Europe's biggest economy seeking to carve out new business empires across Asia.

So as the aid bandwagon gathers momentum, the real questions that have to be asked are: Whose interests will the donors' money serve and what will be the trade-offs between national capitals and international donors?

In addition, what areas and what services will be rebuilt and, equally significantly, how will the region's more troublesome areas be reconstructed? Will the areas that have always been neglected miss out again?

The answers to these questions are likely to emerge well after the visiting dignitaries to the region have returned home and the world's media attention has shifted to other issues.

January 2005

[Copyright Expatica 2005]

Subject: German news, tsunami, tsunami aid

0 Comments To This Article