Reviving an Old Dream of Afro-Asian Cooperation

In 1955, the giants of the developing world gathered in Bandung, Indonesia, in an historic attempt to promote Asian-African solidarity. Despite their hopes, few of the participating countries were stable enough to ensure meaningful change. Fifty years later, developing country leaders gathered in the same city, with the same purpose: to promote cooperation between the two regions. Though the atmosphere seemed similar at this April's Bandung summit, writes Thomas Abraham, social, political, and economic conditions have changed. The modernization of Asian economies – the rapid growth in China and India, in particular – has laid the basis for a meaningful economic relationship between Asia and Africa. This time around, Abraham suggests, participants have a legitimate chance to fulfill the hopes of the original conference. The key to success will be concrete, collaborative action to reduce trade barriers among developing countries. Will all parties seize this opportunity? Or will the summit go down in history as another talk-fest and empty posturing on the global stage? – YaleGlobal

Reviving an Old Dream of Afro-Asian Cooperation

Fifty years after the Bandung meeting, a prosperous Asia is better placed, but many hurdles remain
Thomas Abraham
Tuesday, May 24, 2005
A second try: African and Asian leaders gathered in Bandung to re-launch an aborted move of cooperation

HONG KONG: A seemingly forgotten dream of cooperation between Asia and Africa appeared to revive when presidents and prime ministers from both continents gathered at the Indonesian town of Bandung in late April and declared they had created a new strategic partnership to tackle global and regional issues. As the 40-odd heads of government left the summit, commemorating the 50th anniversary of a famous non-aligned conference in the same city, one question lingered: Had this been another occasion for rhetoric, or were they going to make a serious attempt to loosen the strings that tied them to the West, and to look to themselves to solve their own problems?

The vision of Asia and Africa working together to eradicate poverty, and speaking with a common voice on global issues is at least five decades old. Until now, it has been unrealized. Today, conditions are probably better than they have ever been for this vision to be realized – but a lot of work remains.

The Bandung meeting was convened by Indonesia to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the famous meeting in the same town in 1955, when the then giants of the developing world, Jawaharlal Nehru (India), Sukarno (Indonesia), Zhou Enlai (China), Gamal Abdul-Nasser (Egypt), Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana), and others had met to chart a course for their peoples independent of both the West and the Soviet Union. With the resulting principles of "Bandung Spirit," their meeting laid the foundation for the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), an informal grouping of developing countries that aimed to be the voice of the developing world at the United Nations and other global bodies.

The Non-Aligned Movement – and the various other attempts at developing country solidarity that grew around it – never fulfilled its early promise. This was largely due to the inherent economic and political weaknesses of the developing countries. At the time, even leading members of the developing world were so dependent on the West for aid, trade, and investment that they were rarely in a position to help each other or work to reach common political and economic goals. Politically, the developing world covered such a diverse range of voices, ranging from pro-Soviet Cuba to pro-Western Singapore, that it rarely spoke coherently except on issues that everyone could agree on such as the need to abolish apartheid.

Today, the political divisions of the Cold War are gone, and the modernization of the Asian economies has provided an economic basis for cooperation. There is clearly a deeply felt desire on the part of Asia and Africa to make their voices heard in today's unipolar world. Echoing some of the sentiments from the original Bandung conference, India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh spoke for many when he said, "We account for over half of humanity … yet we do not have commensurate voice in the international institutions of the world." President Yudhoyono of Indonesia spoke in similar vein, describing Asia and Africa as the "missing link" in global politics.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan's also tapped into the spirit of the summit to urge the leaders of Asia and Africa to press for reform of the UN to make it more responsive to their needs. "If we are to make the world a freer, fairer and safer place for all its inhabitants, the institutions of the UN should reflect the world of 2005, not 1945, particularly the Security Council," he said.

While the general spirit of cooperation was reminiscent of similar sentiments from fifty years ago, today's geopolitical and economic realities render those hopes more feasible. The modernization of East and Southeast Asia and the rapid growth in China and India have laid the basis for a meaningful trade and investment relationship between Asia and Africa. Several times during the conference, attendees underscored the need for Asia and Africa to increase their global economic clout and make strategic use of their mineral resources and wealth through trade. And indeed, the potential exists: As a South African diplomat at the conference pointed out, Asia and Africa contain 70 percent of the world's mineral reserves, and Western influence in the in the diamond, gold, and oil trades could be eliminated through free trade between the continents.

Likewise, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh suggested that Asian and African countries deal directly with each to trade oil and natural gas, ending reliance on Western multinational companies: "While our continents include both major producers and consumers of energy, the framework within which we produce and consume energy is determined elsewhere … we must end this anomaly."

According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), this may be possible. UNCTAD has pointed out that a "new geography of trade" has emerged, with developing countries playing a major role in the expansion of global trade. East and South Asia have become major markets for manufacturers, but more importantly, for primary commodities, which Africa is well placed to supply. In its latest Trade and Development report, UNCTAD notes the influence of Asian demand, not merely from China, on the rise in commodity prices in 2003.

The two regions also have in their favor an existing groundwork for increased financial interconnectedness. Several modernizing Asian economies have also become major sources of foreign direct investment in Africa. China, for one, has been building relations with Africa for decades. According to the French monthly Le Monde Diplomatique, in 2004, China contributed more than US$900 million in foreign direct investment in Africa.

Other nations are now increasing their stakes in Africa's development. According to United Nations figures, India is the third-largest source of foreign direct investment in Uganda. Two years ago, buses manufactured by India's Tata Corporation rolled off an assembly line in Senegal for the first time. Malaysia's Petronas oil company operates petrol stations in South Africa and Bostwana, and has oil production and exploration ventures in more than ten African countries.

These economic relationships have facilitated more solid political ties. The need for primary commodities to fuel the growth of the Chinese economy has seen a rapid expansion in trade and a growing political relationship. In 2000, China launched a China-Africa cooperation forum, which led to the signing of an action plan in Addis Ababa in 2004. This plan also spelled out a role for China as a voice for African interests in the UN Security Council, with China pledging "as a permanent member of the UN Security Council" to "support proposals and positions of the African Union."

In the 1950s, the leaders who met at Bandung saw a political and strategic need for cooperation. But without a firm economic basis, cooperation remained an abstract ideal.Now there are signs of a rapidly growing economic relationship between Asia and Africa. It is not hard to foresee the day when countries like China and India become the main markets for African producers of raw materials, and Africa emerges as an important market for basic Asian manufactured goods.

For this to happen though, leading countries such as China, India, and Japan will have to follow through on some of the promises made at the summit. Of these, the most important are opening their own markets – even on a non-reciprocal basis – to products from poorer countries, as well as improving market access in general for trade between the two continents. The test of these countries' true commitments to resurrecting the original Bandung vision will be the speed at which they dismantle the barriers to trade and investment among themselves.

The next Africa-Asia summit will be held in four years time in South Africa. If, by then, trade barriers have begun to fall, then this would provide the best prospects yet for the Asia-Africa relationship to become what President Yudhoyono of Indonesia described as a "true geopolitical and geo-economic reality."

Thomas Abraham is director of the public health media project at the Journalism and Media Studies Center, the University of Hong Kong. He is the author of Twentieth Century Plague: The Story of SARS (Johns Hopkins University Press 2005)

© 2005 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization