Siddharth Varadarajan

Journalist | Writer | Analyst

Bandung: Stage set for Asian-African partnership

22 April 2005
The Hindu

OpinionNews Analysis

Stage set for Asian-African partnership

Siddharth Varadarajan

Never before have the Bandung principles of respect for international law been under more severe strain; India’s challenge is to forget the past and revive the spirit of the forum.

: ONE HUNDRED AND six countries from Asia and Africa — representing more than 73 per cent of the world’s population — will meet this weekend in Indonesia. They will attempt to reinvigorate the spirit of the historic 1955 Afro-Asian conference at Bandung and lay the foundations for a new “strategic partnership” between the two continents.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who will leave for Jakarta on Friday morning, will address the plenary session of the summit on April 23. Apart from a bilateral meeting with the Indonesian President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, he is to meet China’s President, Hu Jintao, as well as Afghanistan’s President, Hamid Karzai, on the sidelines. For India — which played a key role along with Indonesia, Ceylon, Burma and Pakistan, in convening the 1955 meeting — the weekend summit is as relevant an international platform as the original edition. The issues that confronted the 29 countries that came to Bandung then were decolonisation and the growing tension between the two superpowers. The United States had replaced France as the imperial occupier in Vietnam after Dien Bien Phu and the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet had begun making threatening forays into Asia, particularly in the South China and East China Seas. The Bandung principles, understandably, focussed on respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states, abstention from non-interference in the internal affairs of states, non-aggression and the need for the settlement of international disputes by peaceful means.

In its day, the Bandung Conference was considered a landmark event because it sought to bring together two diverse continents that were struggling to rid themselves of foreign domination. Many of its participants later went on to form the Non-Aligned Movement. At the time, however, this first concrete attempt to forge unity between Asia and Africa seemed, to many contemporary commentators, to be improbable, romantic and highly audacious.

`Meeting of underdogs’

Richard Wright, the African-American writer and author of the well-known novel, Native Sun, attended the 1955 conference and went on to write a book about it. “The despised, the insulted, the hurt, the dispossessed — in short, the underdogs of the human race were meeting,” he wrote in The Colour Curtain. “Here were class and racial and religious consciousness on a global scale. Who had thought of organising such a meeting? And what had these nations in common? Nothing, it seemed to me, but what their past relationship to the Western world had made them feel. This meeting of the rejected was in itself a kind of judgment upon the Western world!”

Since most of Africa was still under colonial rule, only six African nations attended: Ethiopia, Egypt, Sudan, Liberia, Libya and the Gold Coast (Ghana). In his closing speech to that conference, Jawaharlal Nehru spoke eloquently of the “Tragedy of Africa” and said that it was “greater than any other”. It is up to Asia to help Africa, he said, to the best of her ability “because we are sister continents”.

Since then, Asia — particularly India, China and South-East Asia — has come a long way and Africa, even if it has not managed to bring the curtains down on its tragedy, is making definite strides. Its economy is still hampered by political instability, outside interference and the domination of foreign economic interests but such is the combined strength and potential of the two continents that a meeting of Asia and Africa today cannot be considered a “meeting of the rejected”.

In other respects, too, the international situation has — and has not — changed. The world may no longer be divided into hostile blocs, but restraining and managing the behaviour and ambitions of the only superpower is emerging as a principal security dilemma in many regions of the globe. Indeed, never before have the Bandung principles — with their focus on the respect for international law — been under more severe strain than they are now.

India’s challenge

The challenge for India is to avoid dwelling in the past and instead seek a reinvigoration of the Bandung spirit and forum on a new basis. The Indonesians say that if the Americas and East Asia can join hands across the Pacific Ocean in APEC and the Atlantic Ocean has the alliance between Europe and the U.S., it is only logical for Asia and Africa to come together in a grouping that spans the Indian Ocean.

With the sub-Saharan region emerging as an important source of energy — Angola, Gabon, Nigeria, Sudan, Equatorial Guinea and Chad, to name only the most well-developed prospects — there is an objective basis for greater economic interaction between Asia and Africa. Asian companies, particularly Indian ones, are also an excellent source for cheaper and more appropriate technologies as far as Africa is concerned.

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This entry was posted on April 22, 2005 by in Asian architecture, Indian Foreign Policy.

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