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The ‘Bandung Divide’: Australia’s lost opportunity in Asia?

Australia attends the 60th anniversary of the Asia-Africa “Bandung” Conference this week as an observer. In 1955, Australia was a no-show and has had a hot and cold relationship with Asia ever since. from Carsten Reisinger/

Indonesia is hosting delegates from dozens of countries this week to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the 1955 Asian-African “Bandung” Conference. Indonesians celebrate the conference as the country’s highest achievement in foreign policy.

By contrast, for most Australians, the Bandung Conference shows Australia’s ambiguous identity in the region. In 1955, Indonesia did not invite Australia even though it was geographically part of Asia. The Australian government was also not interested in taking part.

At the time, the Menzies government regarded the conference as an act of revenge against Australia by the newly independent countries. On April 16 1955, The Sydney Morning Herald wrote that Australia was excluded because admission was based on “colour” rather than common economic interests.

Subsequently, Australia’s official history of foreign policy barely mentions Bandung – even though it was a transformative event in world history taking place just across the Timor Sea.

As we look to the future, Australia should overcome this “Bandung Divide” if it wants to build an enduring partnership with Indonesia and other neighbouring countries.

Why Bandung mattered

The Bandung Conference mattered profoundly for world politics for three reasons.

First, it produced one of the earliest and most systematic statements against colonialism. European imperialism was already doomed after World War II. But the gathering of newly independent countries hastened its demise.

The conference attendants did not only target European imperialism. Some pro-Western states criticised the Soviet Union’s domination of Eastern Europe. The final communiqué criticised colonial rule “in all its manifestations”.

Second, the conference marked Communist China’s arrival as a world power. Mao Zedong had favoured closing off China. As he put it, the priority was “to have the house swept first and invite the guests in”. Zhou Enlai, however, said the door to China “should not be kept closed … we should walk out”.

Many Asian states were suspicious and fearful of the rise of China. Of 29 countries that attended the conference, 22 had no diplomatic relations with China. Zhou Enlai allayed these fears by finding common ground and emphasising peaceful co-existence.

Third, in seeding the Non-Aligned Movement, Bandung paved the way for a radically different form of security diplomacy from that which defines Australian foreign policy. Whereas Australia was transitioning from one senior ally (the UK) to another (the United States), countries like Indonesia had an alternative vision that was more independent and self-consciously internationalist.

Australia’s absence at Bandung

Indonesia did not formally invite Australia to the Bandung Conference. But the Indian prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, one of the sponsors of the event, made it known through diplomatic channels that Australia could have been invited if it signalled its willingness to participate.

The conference included staunch American allies, such as Japan, Pakistan and Turkey. Australia’s commitment to the US would have not been a barrier to participation.

The opposition leader, Herbert Evatt, lobbied the Menzies government hard to seek an invitation. Even the US State Department sent a cable encouraging Australia to attend. But to no avail.

Australia was officially a no-show at Bandung in 1955. But Australian observers, journalists, scholars and undercover agents attended.

Australia’s absence at Bandung was unsurprising given the perennial perceived tension between its geography and its (European) history. By declining to participate, Australia confirmed its status “as a nation in the region but not of it”, to borrow a phrase from Australian historian David Walker.

In defiance of Nehru’s challenge that Australia “come nearer to us and be part of Asia”, Menzies ostentatiously doubled down on Australia’s commitment to the Anglo-sphere after 1955.

This arguably led to Australia being further estranged from China and India (and to a lesser extent, Indonesia) for a generation. It also fuelled suspicions about Australia’s commitment to Asia, which have lingered ever since.

Australia’s no-show at Bandung strengthened its tendency to seek security from Asia rather than within Asia. This legacy of early post-war ambivalence and estrangement has complicated later efforts to re-engage the region, even though Australia subsequently embraced immigrants from Asia and has sporadically spearheaded regional cooperation.

Better late than never?

Sixty years on from the Bandung Conference, Australia is invited as one of 16 observer countries at this week’s commemoration. This should prompt Australians to reflect on the country’s place in Asia.

Australia has a distinct history and identity from the states now celebrating the “Bandung spirit”. They were newly decolonised countries forging a new internationalism of “the South”.

The way Australia seeks security is also different. Indeed, counter-factual reasoning suggests that Australia’s foreign policy would not have been radically altered even if Australia had accepted Nehru’s invitation.

But the “Bandung Divide” is not unbridgeable. The “Ten Principles” in the final communique included ideals that resonate with Australians as they do with Indonesians. These include: respect for fundamental human rights; recognition of the equality of states and peoples; non-aggression in external relations and peaceful settlement of disputes.

Other than a prohibition on collective defence involving “any of the big powers”, these principles are compatible with the UN Charter. We could argue that the 1955 conference anticipated the “responsibility to protect” framework widely adopted by states since 2005.

The delegates of the 29 countries understood that sovereignty did not only come with a right of non-interference. It also generated obligations to assist others in building a more just world order.

The growing complexity of security threats today, from transnational terrorism to government atrocities, compels Australia to have closer security cooperation with its neighbours. Peace in the region also demands that India and China re-discover the principled and cooperative leadership that was evident at Bandung.

The world has changed in fundamental ways since 1955. But the “Bandung spirit” of Afro-Asian solidarity and non-alignment still fires imaginations in many countries – most particularly Indonesia.

Recognition that this history is both distinct and yet oriented towards the universal values laid out in the UN Charter can help Australia to better appreciate the foreign policy outlooks of Indonesia and other countries in Asia now reshaping the global order.

This article derives from a conference on “The Bandung Conference and Beyond”, co-organised by the University of Queensland and the Universitas Gadjah Mada, on April 8-10 2015 in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.

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