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    America urged to devise 'Marshall plan' for Asia
    By David Usborne in New York
    03 January 2005

    As American Sea Hawk helicopters began ferrying emergency supplies to the stricken coastal communities of Aceh on the island of Sumatra at the weekend, voices were being raised in the United States for a longer-term engagement in the area to rebuild lost political goodwill.

    There is already talk of an updated "Marshall plan" for Asia, similar to the post-war aid for Europe, that would save lives and repair America's tattered reputation across the world.

    The helicopters, from the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier anchored close to Sumatra, were the first harbingers of the largest deployment of American military hardware in the region since the Vietnam War. Scores of US vessels and aircraft loaded with emergency supplies and equipment are heading for areas worst hit by the Boxing Day tsunami from points around the globe.

    But America's humanitarian response to the tragedy, which has been ratcheted up rapidly in recent days after an early impression was created of superpower stinginess, was already being described as something much more, a mission to repair relations with the region severely strained since the invasion of Iraq and demonstrate its willingness to use its military might as a force for good.

    Foreign affairs analysts said Washington had the chance to reverse a perception held in much of the rest of the world that its global priorities under President George Bush extend no further than combating terrorism and overthrowing dictators. They said the US, by showing a beneficent side of its power, could advance the fight against terrorism by winning back the hearts and minds of populations in India, Thailand, Somalia and in Indonesia, the world's largest Islamic democracy.

    This may have been the reasoning that has driven the US to accelerate sharply its response to the tragedy. On Friday, the President said US aid would be multiplied 10 times to reach $350m (£182m). Symbolically, Mr Bush has sent his brother, Governor Jeb Bush of Florida, along with the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, to tour the areas of devastation this week and assess immediate needs.

    It has now become clear to President Bush, who returned to the White House last night after a long Christmas break at his ranch in Texas, that the tsunami disaster and its aftermath is going to be high on his list of foreign policy priorities for some time. On Saturday, Mr Bush said the scale of the disaster "defies comprehension" and ordered that flags be lowered to half-mast across America for a week.

    Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, suggested last night that the reconstruction effort in some countries could take as long as a decade. "It will differ from country to country," he said on ABC television, "but my own sense is that you probably have five to 10 years".

    The White House has yet to articulate what kind of long-term strategy it will follow in the countries affected by the tsunami. But already the notion of a new Marshall plan, of the type funded by America to rebuild Europe, with its 30 million refugees, after the Second World War, is beginning to surface in diplomatic discourse.

    In an editorial yesterday, the Los Angeles Times, for example, urged Mr Bush "to propose a Marshall plan-like strategy for the region that would commit billions of dollars for long-term programmes [such as] water purification and improved sanitation systems". The newspaper said: "A massive American-led Marshall plan for south Asia would cost only a fraction of the nearly $225bn requested so far to pay for the Iraq war. And, without a doubt, it would be a far wiser investment in the war on terror."

    Before leaving last night, Mr Powell appeared on television to counter early assertions that America had reacted slowly. He hinted at an even greater level of American engagement, noting that the aid of $350m may be increased as the needs of communities become clearer.

    "We have nothing to be embarrassed about," Mr Powell said. "If you look at your television screens this morning, those are American helicopters that are landing those supplies."

    The clattering blades of the Abraham Lincoln's Sea Hawk helicopters along the coast of Aceh represented only the first wave of the stepped-up American effort. A second battle group, led by the USS Bonhomme Richard, was steaming from the China Sea to the area. Officials said its likely destination was the coast of Sri Lanka.

    And a flotilla is heading for the Indian Ocean from the US naval base in Guam. The vessels are carrying supplies, lorries, heavy construction plant and sanitation equipment. A co-ordination headquarters with representatives from all the US military agencies has been set up at the Utapao air base in Thailand.
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