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Relief and unease

Print edition : Feb 25, 2005 T+T-

The military-run relief assistance that the United States, Australia, India and Japan extended to Indonesia, particularly in the Aceh province, comes under careful observation in East Asia because of the political significance of the region.

recently in Jakarta

WITH Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia having overcome the shock of the tsunami and the logistical complexities that hindered relief work, the political focus in the region has shifted to questions about the long-term implications of the role played by significant numbers of foreign troops in rendering humanitarian relief.

While the United States, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia and India were among the first to send naval ships and related personnel to the restive Indonesian province of Aceh, the worst-hit area, the "game plans" of Washington and Canberra came in for careful observation in East Asian diplomatic circles.

With Thailand being a major non-NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) ally of the U.S. and with Malaysia having had no need to ask for external help of any kind, the military-related questions came to the fore with regard to only Indonesia, especially in view of Jakarta's military action against the separatist rebels in Aceh in the past few years. At the time of writing, some new moves were being made for political contacts and even parleys between the Indonesian government and the Aceh separatists. However, these goings on, behind the scenes, had nothing much to do with the signals and substance of the foreign military involvement in the tsunami relief efforts in Aceh.

Of the countries that rendered military-led relief assistance to Indonesia, India was in a category of its own. The initial deployment of two Indian Navy ships - INS Nirupak (a survey ship converted into a floating hospital) and INS Khukri (a missile corvette laden with relief supplies worth $1 million) - off Meulaboh, the worst-affected town, signified a logical extension of New Delhi's diplomacy of rendering military-driven relief to Sri Lanka and the Maldives as quickly as possible.

INS Khukri left the Aceh coastline by mid-January after delivering the relief goods and INS Nirupak left in the third week of January. This action was taken independent of the official Indonesian request to foreign troops on relief missions to leave the province by March 26, three months from the date of the disaster.

INS Nirupak was fully equipped for procedures ranging from total diagnosis to emergency operations, and it had an intensive care unit as well. The services of its personnel came in for considerable attention in the regional diplomatic circles and among the local people. Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono appreciated India's military-led relief effort at Meulaboh, and New Delhi's gesture has certainly been noticed as a manifestation of the speed and efficiency of the Indian Navy's logistical capabilities in a crisis.

Also noticed, more important, was the diplomatic cushion that the two INS vessels seemed to give the Indonesian authorities, who came under pressure at home for having allowed foreign navies, especially those of the U.S. and Australia, "free access" to a politically sensitive and volatile area. China, too, was wary of Japan's efforts to deploy transport aircraft of its Air Self-Defence Force and also personnel and equipment for relief work in Aceh.

However, the overall international concern related to the military presence of the U.S. and Australia, which have often criticised Indonesia for its alleged human rights violations in using force against the rebels belonging to the Free Aceh Movement (GAM in local parlance) and their native supporters. The GAM seeks to carve a radical Islamist nation of Aceh from out of Indonesia, which itself is the country with the world's largest Muslim population.

By early February, the U.S. battleships deployed off Aceh, inclusive of a state-of-the-art aircraft carrier, Abraham Lincoln, had completed their "humanitarian mission". However, Jakarta's concerns regarding the U.S. military presence in or near Aceh pertained in part to the political irony of an Islamist group seeking "freedom" from the control of a Muslim-majority state. There is, however, a significant strategic reason, too, for Jakarta's wariness, and this applies not just to Indonesia but also to other countries in East Asia.

A new geopolitical reality, in this context, is that the U.S. military personnel have now operated in a regional segment where Washington did not have a physical presence until recently. Although the U.S. personnel and equipment in question were meant exclusively for relief and reconstruction efforts, their presence was viewed favourably by some East Asian states because this vital maritime segment of the Aceh coastline is very close to the Straits of Malacca.

Some littoral states had, for some time now, made no secret of their displeasure over Washington's pre-tsunami moves to patrol or control by military means the pivotal Straits of Malacca under the proposal of a Regional Maritime Security Initiative (Frontline, June 4, 2004). This initiative has not so far taken off as a U.S.-led operation mainly on account of the reservations expressed by Indonesia and Malaysia. Right now, these two countries and Singapore seek to keep the Straits of Malacca safe from terrorism and piracy through coordinated patrols.

For Australia, which is known to be Washington's main "Western ally" in the Asia-Pacific region, which includes East Asia, the stakes in the military-run relief effort in Aceh roughly coincided with those of the U.S. Not surprisingly, therefore, Canberra sought to allay Indonesian concerns in several ways. Australian Prime Minister John Howard announced on January 9 that a one-billion-Australian-dollar package had been drawn up to take "a historic step" in his country's relationship with Indonesia. Known as the "Australia-Indonesia Partnership for Reconstruction and Development", Canberra's biggest external aid package to date, it "will ensure that resources go where they are most needed", he said.

Without making an explicit reference to his country's military personnel in Aceh under "Operation Sumatra Assist", Howard said: "Australians were the first foreigners on the ground in Indonesia after the disaster - a fact gratefully acknowledged by President Yudhoyono during our recent meeting in Jakarta. We will stay as long as we are needed."

In late January, Tokyo announced its move to set up "an ad hoc office" in Aceh to coordinate with the Indonesian authorities there how best the deployed personnel and units belonging to the Japanese Ground Self-Defence Force could render "humanitarian" help, inclusive of that related to reconstruction work.

As for the U.S., though, the issues at stake go well beyond such basic facts as whether or not the aircraft carrier, and the accompanying vessels have left the Aceh coastline. The international scepticism, except in the U.S.-friendly quarters in East Asia, has much to do with Washington's perception of its exceptional prowess in the matter of providing "humanitarian relief" as well.

It is this aspect of the U.S. discourse on the relief issue that prompted Indonesia itself to downplay the deadline, after it was set, for the pullout of foreign troops from the Aceh area.

Asked in Jakarta on January 16 whether there was a rush to pull U.S. troops out of the tsunami-hit areas, especially Aceh, because of pressure for more military personnel in Iraq, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Paul Wolfowitz said: "The sooner that this [relief] burden can be passed off to other people, and most of all to the Indonesians themselves, we'll be happier. But as long as, for example, large numbers of helicopters are required, at least for the moment we are the only country that can provide large numbers of helicopters. We are looking at things like fixing roads so that we don't depend on helicopters so much longer. But I repeat that I think we all need to look at this in terms of how to fill a need that is just indescribable from a humanitarian point of view, and which happens to have come in a country (Indonesia) that is of enormous importance to the whole world and in a province of that country that has a special political importance. So we need to get that job done."

Indonesian Defence Minister Juwono Sudarsono has not only praised the U.S. military as "the backbone of the logistical operations" behind the relief effort in Aceh but also projected the deadline of March 26 as "a benchmark for the Indonesian government to improve and accelerate its relief effort". Commensurate with that, the foreign troops on relief missions "will be allowed to continue, albeit on a reduced scale".

With the U.S. and others completing their military-driven aid efforts in the Aceh area, or at least scaling down the presence of their troops there, by early February, a new diplomatic issue has come to the fore.

The U.S., India, Australia and Japan formed the original "core group" for international assistance to the countries hit by the tsunami of December 26. The navies of these four countries are also known to be either formidable or professionally competent.

Does the "core group", then, signal the possibility of a strategic understanding, if not a decisive equation, among these countries at some stage in the future?