A regional power often displays its capacity for leadership in extraordinary events. The UShas an example in the Berlinairlift during the Cold War, or the Arab states in solidarity in the first Iraqi war with the annexation of Kuwait. Many see the tsunami episode as an equivalent for China. Though its aid pale in comparison withJapanor the US, as a developing country, its aid package has veered rather close to traditional aid-dispensing states in the developed world, such as the UK.
China's aid has to be seen in the context as a new entrant to the world economy and is the largest aid dispensing exercise in the history of the People's Republic ofChina. Its rapid response of an initial sum of US$2.62 million, roughly equivalent to the sum of money offered by the EU in the immediate aftermath, was impressive for a newcomer. It was also significant as the Chinese bureaucracy has not been known previously to be rapid in reaction to disasters. This hence signals China’s intention to stamp its mark of leadership upon the region.
Other than aid promises itself, China has also dispatched four medical teams to tsunami-hit areas, and has agreed to write off Sri Lanka’s US$4.3 million debt.Beijingwas also fast to offer to host a conference on setting up a regional warning system similar to that found in the USwith regards to the Pacific ocean. Topics discussed included imitating a Global Positioning system for early warning based on the UStechnical model.
A level of trust and rapport has also been established in the conference with a regional news media highlighting the level of comfort between ASEAN delegates and their Chinese counterparts. Chinese initiatives were well-received and ASEAN seem reassured that Chinais not using the disaster for its own personal agenda.
It is still early to tell if the recent tsunami episode is a useful indicator of world geopolitical realignment with particularly impressive performances coming from US,Japan, Germany(the three multi hundred million dollar donor) and now the newcomer of China. China's performance in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami proves that it has the potential and capacity to perform a regional leadership role.
Lim Tai Wei is SIIA Overseas Associate Fellow.