The Bandung Conference at 60: Redeeming Unfulfilled Promises

Another article of mine solicited by the People’s Daily but which it found unable to publish for reasons not fully explained. This article (minus the sub-headings) was requested as early as February for use during the anniversary in April. Some quotes were used by the People’s Daily in translation without running them past me first.

The Asian-African Conference, more commonly referred to as the Bandung Conference, will mark its 60th anniversary in April 2015. This is an opportune time therefore, to ask a few hard questions about the achievements that the Third World have made since the high ideals espoused at the event. The conference was held by the Afro-Asian nations to discuss their common problems and to evolve a joint approach to playing a greater role in world affairs, including strengthening opposition to Western colonialism and imperialism. In hindsight, it is evident that even as Asian and African leaders engaged in lofty political rhetoric, they neither fully trusted each other and nor did they actually have the economic wherewithal to bring their cooperation and development plans to fruition.

Self-Interest over Principle

The final 10-point statement at the end of the Conference focused largely on political goals. Its ‘declaration on promotion of world peace and cooperation’, however, has been violated and continues to be violated by the many participants at the Conference. Neither respect for ‘fundamental human rights’ nor the ‘equality of all races’ is a core principle of governance for the vast majority of Asian and African nations yet. Not even India, the country with the longest and strongest democratic of them all, is an exemplar in this matter, even though its free press and strong, independent judiciary mostly manage to hold the executive to account.

If the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries – also a Panchsheel principle – were truly respected, the two continents would not have seen so many civil wars and other tensions. Several countries have since fought wars with each other including China and India, India and Pakistan and China and Vietnam and many nations continue to be members of military alliances.

And despite reiterating the 10-point declaration at the 50th anniversary of the Bandung Conference in 2005 and adding still further principles and ideals to the Declaration on The New Asian-African Strategic Partnership (NAASP), intra-regional territorial disputes such as in the East China Sea and in the South China Sea, for instance, have only gotten worse and are sources of serious tension between some of the participants at the Conference. While there are declarations of intent to settle their disputes by ‘peaceful means of the parties own choice’, these do not happen in reality and nor is ‘conformity with the charter of the United Nations’ or ‘respect for justice and international obligations’ evident when the principles of international law are not followed.

The NAASP, despite some work in terms of the Palestine issue and several training programmes on a range of issues, is largely not a force to reckon with among the many multilateral regional and global initiatives. In fact, smaller groupings such as the exclusive BRICS or the more focused Indian Ocean Rim Association are far more visible and perhaps also effective in achieving Afro-Asian coordination and cooperation.

Long road ahead for Asia-Africa Unity
Long road ahead for Asia-Africa unity

Reviving the Bandung Spirit

This then raises the question of what ails the Asian-African Summit. Of course, the Bandung Conference would eventually lead to the Belgrade conference of 1961 which led to the establishment of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). Even though this organization too was divided by internal contradictions and the inability of its members to come together on many important regional and global issues, the NAM did play a crucial and important role for its time during the Cold War. It allowed the poor and developing countries of Asia and Africa to preserve a degree of independence in their foreign policies and to not have to bow to the exigencies of alliances with either the United States or the Soviet Union. However, while keeping them free of Cold War encumbrances, the NAM did not also quite fulfill the development goals of its member countries. These countries were still dependent on either the Western bloc or the Soviet one for both technology and economic aid. Without economic strength, an independent foreign policy could not be sustained for long.

One of the ideas behind the Bandung Conference was also to revive old links between the two continents lost during the period of colonialism and its failure has really been in its inability in the 60 years since to do so. Much of the trade of both continents remains directed either inwards or towards the West but not so much towards each other. Further, educational and cultural exchanges, scientific and technical cooperation, even sports exchanges both between the continents and within them remain far too limited, and pale in comparison to what sometimes even individual Asian or African nations have with the West.

Over the last decade or so, Indian and Chinese enterprises have begun to raise their stakes on the African continent, particularly in the hydrocarbon and minerals sector with an increasing interest also in agriculture. However, these forays have not been without their problems. Chinese and Indian companies have been accused of repeating Western models of exploitation and racism in Africa; China, especially has been particularly, targeted by Western governments and NGOs for its business and trade practices in Africa. Some of these criticisms are valid and India and China have yet to develop a model of development that is both acceptable and capable of successful replication across the Asian and African continents.

That said, India and China as emerging global powers have also provided African nations greater and often better choices than the West. And given that memories of colonialism and imperialism remain fresh in the two Asian giants, they are also far more sensitive to African interests and willing to rein in their enterprises and prevent them from engaging in sharp or exploitative practices. Indian and Chinese infrastructure development and aid in Africa come at far less the cost of the average Western project and nor do their workers or managers cost as much as Westerners do.

And now with India’s Project Mausam and China’s 21st Century Maritime Silk Road initiative, Africa, too, will benefit from the economic development aid that the two Asian giants will be directing at their neighbours. These new Indian and Chinese initiatives will both revive and add to historical trade linkages that existed between the two continents.

They will also hopefully provide fresh impetus to Afro-Asian relations by moving beyond only elite-level interactions to including people-to-people exchanges in the form of greater tourism and educational ties. Ultimately, the true promise of Bandung can only be fulfilled if ordinary Africans and Asians can meet and interact with each other in ever-increasing numbers, with greater empathy and without racial and other prejudices in each other’s countries and not only via the West. India and China as the Third World’s most populous, powerful and technologically-advanced nations, have the greater responsibility to drive Afro-Asian unity and to promote the true Bandung spirit.

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