More than 30 heads of state and representatives of nearly 80 countries are attending a summit to mark the 60th anniversary of the 1955 Asian-African Conference in Indonesia this week in a world very different from the one delegates experienced in 1955.
Then, two superpowers were engaged in the Cold War. Indonesia under Sukarno hosted in Bandung a gathering of newly independent countries that were adamant they would not be puppets of either the Soviet Union or the United States. Former colonies banded together to challenge the global order of the time.
Today, Soviet Union no longer exists. The global liberal order is more or less institutionalised. But doubts about the global economic system are rising after the shocking 2009-2010 global financial crisis and the Eurozone crisis.
Optimism linger in the two continents of Asia and Africa for their promising economic performance. But do they still share the solidarity of the 1950s?
More to the point, will this week’s conference be able to leave a significant impact on global politics, as the 1955 meeting did?
The original Asian-African Conference changed the relationship between developed and developing countries. It introduced the idea of a distinct “Third World” composed of newly independent Asian and African countries, plus other developing countries. These countries created the Non-Aligned Movement and aimed to transform the global economic order into one that did not exploit them.
Developing countries opened the debate on “right to development”. In the 1970s, they proposed a left-leaning “New International Economic Order” to replace the Bretton Woods monetary system that demands governments relinquish control over their markets. One of the terms of the NIEO was for governments of developing countries to have more control over multinational companies operating in their territory.
Today, the concept of the “Third World” is no longer attractive. It has grown to be a pejorative term, associated with poor and aid-dependent countries. The legacy of the conference has gradually become irrelevant.
The rallying cry of Asian, African and Latin American countries, also symbolically known as the “global south”, in the UN General Assembly meetings from 1950s-1970s for a more just international economic system has faded. The Non-Aligned Movement still holds regular meetings, but these are largely ceremonial.
Even before the collapse of the communist Soviet Union, Asian and African countries had began to align themselves with the United States by integrating their economies with the global liberal order. Since the 1980s, they have opened up their markets through policies such as the the Doi Moi in Vietnam and Pakto 88 in Indonesia.
Attempts at rejuvenation
Developing countries have tried to rejuvenate solidarity between developing countries in Asia, Africa as well as Latin America with little success.
In 2005, during the commemoration of the golden jubilee of the Asian-African Conference, participants launched the New Asian-African Strategic Partnership (NAASP), co-chaired by Indonesia and South Africa.
However, NAASP has failed to significantly increase the level of cooperation between the nations of the two continents. Some cooperation programs did run under NAASP but not at the level that was expected. The programs were mostly seminars and capacity-building programs.
Challenges in Asian-African relationships
This year’s conferences includes high-level meetings with the agenda of “Strengthening South-South Cooperation to Promote World Peace and Prosperity”. One of the main agenda items is to produce a document “reinvigorating NAASP”.
But, establishing a distinct Asia-Africa cooperation platform after the end of the Cold War is quite a task.
The Asia-Africa Conference 1955 did, to some extent, successfully open pathways to create institutions such as the Non-Aligned Movement and the G-77. However, there were specific circumstances in the 1950s that made it possible. We have a different situation now.
Asian and African countries today are not very excited about creating a platform to connect nations from the two continents. Unlike in 1955, there is no binding narrative that could unite these countries. The memories of colonialism are fading into the past.
While still lumped together as “developing countries”, Asian and African nations have grown into different stages of development. Some are economic giants, others are lilliputian.
The absence of a shared narrative has made Asian and African countries reluctant to develop NAASP seriously. For example, the African Union (AU) and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) rejected South Africa’s suggestion to include NAASP in their agendas.
Asia’s major powers are not interested in developing this platform either. Beijing prefers to develop economic cooperation with African countries through bilateral means. Developing a new multilateral institution is costly and, due to the differing interests of members, complex.
Other Asian powers, such as India and Japan, have similar stories. Only Indonesia is willing to pay the cost for the NAASP. But Jakarta does not have the clout to provide a “hegemonic stability”. Indonesia is not a Germany in Europe or a United States in the global system.
Despite those obstacles, there are ways to make this week’s five-day gathering in Jakarta and Bandung fruitful.
First, Indonesia needs to convince major powers in Asia and Africa to be willing to play their part in building the NAASP. The growing rivalry between China and Japan in the ASEAN region could provide Jakarta with a bargaining chip for the cause.
Second, rather than developing NAASP as a new institution, Asian and African countries could start by connecting regional initiatives in Asia and Africa, such as ASEAN and COMESA (Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa), SADC (South African Development Community) or EAC (East African Community). NAASP also could act as a hub or a clearinghouse of cooperation between Asian and African countries.
These approaches might reduce the cost of institutional building and make the agenda of “advancing South-South cooperation” attainable.