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India Helps Burma, China in Wake of Disasters

India has sent relief and pledged assistance to two neighboring countries recently struck by natural disasters: Burma and China. Anjana Pasricha reports from New Delhi on India's efforts to project itself as a responsible regional power.

When a cyclone devastated Burma, earlier this month, Indian navy ships and aircraft began ferrying relief supplies to its neighbor in less than 24 hours.

The foreign ministry says two Indian medical teams are treating 1,500 patients a day in the disaster area.

Commerce Minister Jairam Ramesh assured a recent pledging conference in Rangoon that India will assist the country in reconstruction work.

India has also reached out to another neighbor, China, which is coping with the aftermath of a massive earthquake. New Delhi has pledged $5 million in assistance and sent transport aircraft with relief material such as tents.

Unlike many countries, India has diplomatic relations with Burma's military rulers. Bilateral ties with China have vastly improved in recent years.

But analysts say India's efforts to help its neighbors are more than just friendly gestures.

A foreign policy analyst with New Delhi's Center for Policy Research, Brahma Chellaney, says India wants to demonstrate that it can play a responsible regional role.

"In recent weeks, India has rushed large amounts of aid both to impoverished Burma as well as to booming China," he said. "It did not make a distinction between China and Burma. It is an effort to reach out and help people in one's neighborhood -- of course with the hope that this will improve the diplomatic environment and help improve bilateral relations and also help increase India's role in the region."

Analysts say New Delhi has stepped up "aid diplomacy" in recent years, in a bid to raise its global profile.

India's efforts to project itself as an aid-giver rather than an aid recipient were first noticed after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami struck several countries in the region. Within hours, Indian warships had ferried supplies to Sri Lanka, Maldives and Indonesia -- even though the disaster had struck its own southern shores. India declined foreign aid, saying the money should go to countries in greater need.

Former Indian Foreign Secretary Lalit Mansingh says New Delhi wants to emphasize that it is an emerging power.

"I think now India is giving a message that 'yes we have reached a state of development where we are in a position to help others, and that is why we are doing it'. There is a feeling that our capabilities have increased, and we can do it. We feel we have reached the stage where other countries deserve it [aid] more than we do," he said.

Last year, as a growing economy raised its confidence, New Delhi set aside $1 billion for international aid, saying this was in step with India's growing stature in global affairs.

It is a much smaller amount, compared to what other Asian countries such as Japan or China disburse as aid. But it is a far cry from the time when India was, itself, reliant on massive aid from foreign donors.

Saumitra Chaudhuri, an economist on the prime minister's economic advisory council, says India has virtually phased out relying on external aid, in recent years.

"There was a time, maybe till about the middle 80's, when bilateral and multilateral assistance used to comprise a very large segment of capital flows into India. Now, they comprise a very, very small segment -- such a small segment that it is barely noticeable."

India's large navy and air force make it easy for New Delhi to extend a helping hand when disasters strike. India has the world's fourth largest military and its fleet of warships in the Indian Ocean and large air force can ferry disaster relief material quickly to neighboring countries.

But India's policy of stepping up international aid has its detractors. Some domestic critics question whether a country with more than 300 million living people under the poverty line is in a position to hand out aid to others.