One of the more striking images of the 2008 earthquake in China was of a Japanese destroyer steaming into a Chinese port as part of a relief mission, the first such instance since the end of World War II. The Chinese were quick to reciprocate with a similar offer of aid following the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. Disaster relief operations as an opportunity to engage in diplomacy is not a new phenomenon but seems certainly to have picked up pace in recent years, particularly in Asia, where disasters are frequent and more often than not are accompanied by heavy losses to life and property.
It is important however, to note that disaster relief diplomacy has done little either to salve the wounds of history or resolve territorial disputes. As late as September last year, in fact, Sino-Japanese relations were at their worst ever in some years, following Japan’s detention of Chinese sailors intruding into what it considered were its territorial waters. Similarly, South Korea and Japan are at the moment engaged in another spat over disputed islands in the East Sea and this when the former had just collected record donations for Japan’s earthquake relief.
Meanwhile, there are instances of historical animosities actually coming in the way of effective relief operations. In the case of Indo-Pak relations, for example, Islamabad turned down Indian offers of aid from across the LOC following the 2005 Kashmir quake – an attitude that created delays in rescue efforts and certainly cost lives. In fact, it was observed that in the absence of state capacity, Islamic relief organisations had taken the lead in rescue efforts on the Pakistani side. This led to still greater friction between India and Pakistan, since according to New Delhi, these organisations were simultaneously using the opportunity to spread their message of hate against India.
Pakistan’s actions in the 2005 quake also highlight another kind of politics in the post-disaster aftermath, namely one of preserving regime legitimacy in the affected country. No doubt, a Pakistani government led by a military strongman could not be seen as accepting aid directly from the ‘enemy’ as it were. Similarly, following Cyclone Nargis in 2008, Myanmar’s ruling military junta delayed the distribution of aid from international agencies until it could be re-marked with the names of its senior generals. Such domestic political grandstanding was also in evidence in China following the Yunnan quake last month – one of the instructions the Central Propaganda Department issued to state-run media was to highlight the active involvement of Chinese political leaders in rescue activities.
The Chinese have in fact, turned disaster management into a fine art. China managed to cover up for 30 years, the 270,000 deaths of the massive Tangshan earthquake of 1976. However, in May 2008, when the Sichuan quake struck, China took the opposite tack. The Tibetan protests that took place earlier in March, had badly dented Beijing’s image in the run-up to the Olympic Games – widely perceived at home as marking China’s arrival on the global stage. Following the quake, China soon realised that greater openness to the world actually generated international sympathy and helped overcome the negative publicity of the Tibetan protests. It is of course, another story, that as soon as the Beijing Olympics had wound down, the Chinese authorities were not as concerned about their image. In addition, in trying to cover up reports of the poor construction of public buildings, including schools that killed hundreds when they collapsed, they even arrested bereaved parents protesting against the corruption that led to poor building standards.
Meanwhile, there is within countries yet another kind of politics that is in operation in the wake of disasters, namely one of discrimination. Even after accounting for lack of government capacity, such discrimination has been in evidence in post-disaster relief operations and reconstruction in Pakistan – following the Kashmir quake and the 2008 Balochistan quake, for example. In Sri Lanka, in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, it was found that Colombo was reluctant to focus relief efforts in the Tamil-dominated north and east of the island that were in fact the most heavily affected.
In an inter-dependent world, one country’s tragedy is just as much a tragedy for the world at large and an opportunity to come together to cooperate and move beyond the past. Yet, in the Asian context at least, competitive politics both between countries and within polities appear never to be far from the surface.
Jabin T. Jacob is Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS), New Delhi and Assistant Editor of the journal, China Report.
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