Indian Naval Diplomacy: Post Tsunami

08 Feb, 2005    ·   1640

Vijay Sakhuja examines the Indian Navy's rapid and extensive deployment in wake of the Tsunami catastrophe in the Indian Ocean region

The recent Tsunami tidal waves hit the shores of eleven Indian Ocean littoral countries namely Bangladesh, Burma, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Malaysia, Maldives, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Tanzania and Thailand. The effects were however felt across the Atlantic Ocean as far as the west coast of the United States. While Indonesia and Sri Lanka were hardest hit, Thailand and India's southeastern coast, Andaman and Nicobar Islands suffered extensive damage. Search and rescue operations have largely been completed and efforts have shifted to the task of relief/recovery/reconstruction.

Indian Naval ships, aircraft, helicopters, and personnel responded to the Tsunami in the Indian Ocean promptly. The Indian Navy deployed 32 naval ships, seven aircraft and 20 helicopters in support of five rescue, relief and reconstruction missions as part of 'Operation Madad' (Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu coast), 'Operation Sea Waves' (Andaman & Nicobar Islands), 'Operation Castor' (Maldives), 'Operation Rainbow' (Sri Lanka) and 'Operation Gambhir' (Indonesia). On 26 December 2004, the day Tsunami hit the subcontinent, the Indian Navy had deployed 19 ships, four aircraft, and 11 helicopters that rushed to Maldives, Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu and Andaman & Nicobar Islands. This speaks volumes of the efficiency and the operational readiness of the Indian Navy.

The US military has the largest presence in the area, with crucial assets like helicopters, support ships, hospital ships and organizational skills followed by India. The other naval forces present in the area include Australia, Bangladesh, UK, France, Japan, and Pakistan but on a much smaller scale. Ships from France and Japan are also on their way with relief materials and would soon be supporting the post-Tsunami relief and reconstruction work. This Tsunami relief maritime effort is perhaps the largest peacetime congregation of maritime assets barring concentration of maritime forces in the Persian Gulf in support of the US-led 1991 Gulf War and the War on Terror. The US forces once again exhibited their global commitment by dispatching men and material in support of Tsunami relief operations. The Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group and two other navy vessels were deployed off Aceh and their helicopters transported food and relief materials to inaccessible areas, villages and creeks as also ferry the injured to hospitals. Despite this great effort by the US, regional countries remain apprehensive about US presence on their soil.

In the last few days, there have been rumblings in Jakarta, that Indonesia should not be surrendering its sovereignty to outsiders. It has now announced that all foreign troops assisting in the tsunami relief operation must leave the country by March end. It is sensitive to the thought that it was relying too heavily on foreign forces that now want to wrest control of the relief operation. Consequently, the US Marines, diverted from duty in Iraq, have scaled back their plans to send hundreds of troops ashore to build roads and the US carrier group has also left the region.

In the recent past, Indonesia and Malaysia have reacted sharply to the United States', Regional Maritime Security Initiative that aimed to deploy Marines and Special Forces troops on high-speed boats in the Malacca Straits to combat terrorism, proliferation, piracy, gun running, narcotics smuggling and human trafficking in the area. Malaysia announced that the US should get permission from regional countries as it impinged on their national sovereignty. Likewise, Indonesia too was averse to the US initiative and wanted that the US must consult regional countries before any effort to fight terrorism in Southeast Asia. Despite this disaster and catastrophe, Indonesia remains sensitive to US presence on its soil. This issue becomes more important in the light of the fact that the worst hit, Aceh region is home to the secessionist rebels at war against the Jakarta government since 1976. Regional powers are apprehensive of extra regional navies and fear that such a force could be used for coercion, compellence or a massive projection of power. ?

Unlike Indonesia, Sri Lanka has been glad to receive assistance from Indian Navy who helped in clearing Galle, Trincomalee and Colombo harbours for normal maritime operations. It has, so far, not reacted to Indian naval presence and naval activity in its harbours. This is primarily due to the Indian Navy good record of cooperation with the regional navies and is best exemplified by the several responses like the capture of PLOTE rebels that tried to overthrow the government in Maldives, capture of the pirate-hijacked ship Alondra Rainbow, seafront security of Maputo for the second African Union Summit. The international community has acknowledged India's capability and the resources. India has registered its presence in the tsunami-affected region, as a compassionate power capable of helping its neighbours needs even when its own shores are troubled. The Indian naval efforts have further exhibited its well-oiled disaster management machinery and that it was capable of assisting any regional maritime disaster crisis.