Meanings of the 1955 Bandung Conference for the Present Time
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Meanings of the 1955 Bandung Conference for the Present Time

In June academic colleagues from the University of Bath’s Department of Politics, Languages & International Studies were in Bandung, Indonesia where they were co-hosting a three-day event with the University of Education in Bandung focused on ‘Remaking Bandung: Renewing Solidarity, Strengthing Educational Cooperation and Remaking Destinies for the Global South.’ The original Bandung Conference took place 60 years ago and marked the step change in African-Asian economic and cultural cooperation in opposition to colonialism or neocolonialisation by any nation.

Here Dr Bryan Pak-Nung Wong, Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations within the Department of Politics, Languages & International Studies, reflects on the meaning of the 1955 Bandung conference for the present time.

The 60th anniversary commemorative activities of the 1955 Afro-Asian Conference (hereafter ‘Bandung Conference’) started with the official commemoration held in 21-25 April, Bandung and Jakarta of Indonesia. The event was well attended by delegates from more than one hundred countries, sixteen observer countries and twenty-five international organisations. Like the Bandung Conferences held in 1955 and 2005, heads of states from the Global South attended this special event and attracted global media coverage. Parallel and upcoming commemorative activities have been held in Bandung.

Nationalist struggles

After years of nationalist struggles and eventually attaining flag-independence from the Dutch colonial rule in 1949, Indonesian President Sukarno immediately found himself to be caught in-between the competing forces inside and outside this newly born nation. Internally, he had a very challenging time in trying to keep the Indonesian military, Islamists and the Communists together under the newly conceived parliamentary democracy. Externally, he had also a very challenging time in coping with the internal tensions and external pressures caused by the U.S.-Soviet bipolar rivalry during the first Cold War (1950s–1980s). The 1955 Bandung Conference could be contextualized within such complexity of post-colonial governance imbroglio that many state-leaders and peoples of the African and Asian countries are still facing nowadays.

Trying hard to keep the US and Soviet encroachments at bay and striving arduously for genuine independence from various forms of neo-colonialisms, Sukarno decided to invite the People’s Republic of China to the first Bandung Conference held in 1955. Seeing it as an opportunity to break away from the Soviet-US rivalry, Chairman Mao therefore sent Zhou Enlai to Bandung. As Beijing’s increasing involvement in Indonesia catalysed the Indonesian Communist movement, Mao eventually could not save the Sukarno regime from a US-backed military coup in 1967, when General Suharto’s junta brought Indonesia onto the path of authoritarian rule for more than three decades. During the first Cold War, similar US-backed East Asian military regimes were then founded along the Pacific first-island chain, i.e. South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines and Thailand, constituting the geopolitical containment to Mao’s China.

Today, although the disintegration of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s gave way to two decades of relatively unrivalled triumphalism of US-led global capitalism and neo-liberal globalization, China’s increasing political presence and economic ventures in the Global South, and Russia’s bounce-back advancement to the European front after the recent Ukrainian crisis have also re-constituted the Cold War-style great-power rivalry in 1955. Following the US’s recent geostrategic shift to the internal shale gas/oil revolution and sourcing alternative energy sources, a re-enactment of the US containment plan in regards to a rising China, a resurging global Islam and a returning Russia has been in force. In the midst of this looming second Cold War (2010s–present), increasingly overlapping geopolitical interests and closer strategic-energy partnership can now be identified between China and Russia. The ongoing conflicts in the Middle East surrounding the Islamic State continue to suggest that great-power rivalry in the affairs of the Global South have been resilient.

New exchanges with the Global South

At this historical juncture, since 2013, China’s President Xi Jinping started to launch the ‘Belt and Road’ initiative to strengthen international policy communications, international trade, economic linkages, transnational transportation infrastructure, telecommunication networks and people-to-people exchanges with the Global South. Appearing to stand as an alternative from the US-led post-Bretton Woods (1944) global governance institutions (which consist of the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, Asian Development Bank, etc.), the ‘Belt and Road’ initiative has now established the New (BRICS) Development Bank (2013), the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (2014) and the Silk Road Fund (2015). With this emerging alternative global governance structure, the states and societies of the Global South may have now seen fresh opportunities to gain further advancements towards genuine post-colonial independence in the following counts.

In the first place, because of the alternative global governance structure and mechanism are being formed, it is now perhaps very timely for the Global South to voice their wishes, indicate concerns and raise expectations on these new initiatives. Bear in mind that China, for the past thousand years, has been entangled in the dynastic cycle of war-and-peace authoritarian rule in which the centralized, paternalistic, tributary and statist political system has been resilient in not just the mainland China, but its authoritarian variations have also existed in other Chinese-inhabiting polities. Although pushing for a full-fledged democratization of the contemporary Chinese domestic politics would take a longer time, it is not impossible that we can now ask for a larger-scale democratization of China’s international relations. That is to create a more democratic global governance structure and mechanism in which the state actors and NGOs of the Global South could participate and co-shape the policy-making processes in these newly established international financial and monetary institutions.

Promoting mutual respect

Second, it would be useful to recourse future policy debates and actions back to the Bandung spirit and the 1955 10-point declarations, which have binding effects over China’s foreign policy behaviours since 1955. In other words, the Global South might be able to find a negotiation foothold and versatile table-turning anchorage with the newly established alternative global governance structure along the lines of the following five principles:

(1) Mutual respect for human rights, justice, sovereignty and territorial integrity;

(2) Recognition of the equality of all races and nations, regardless of their sizes;

(3) Abstention from interfering another country’s internal affairs;

(4) Abstention from the use of military means, including issuing threats and pressures against the territorial integrity and political independence of any country;

(5) Promotion of mutual interests and cooperation as well as the use of peaceful means to settle disputes.

Third, China’s increasingly presence and involvements in the Global South have been somehow characterized by the debates between two dominant approaches: neo-colonialism and statism. The former suggests that China’s interests and behaviours in the Global South are not essentially different from Western colonial rule and neo-colonialism, i.e. exploitation and use of violence. The latter argues that China’s engagements with the Global South have been privileging the state actors in the Global South because China’s state-centric authoritarian repertoire and the Chinese Communist Party’s deep-seated statist agendas. While the two approaches may be of certain degrees of truism, they both see China as the sole Independent Variable of global affairs whereas the Global South is largely perceived as the mere Dependent Variable.

To conclude, it would therefore be anticipated that the Global South will take advantage of the newly established alternative global governance structure to hedge against the existing US-led global governance structure for their own benefits and re-making their own destinies. As a result, there is a hope to see a third emerging approach, which the versatile Global South will be able to turn the negotiation tables round and round against the great powers, to juggle across and to astutely hedge the two global governance structures, so as to become the true master or Independent Variable of global affairs in a future of surprises. These surprises will hopefully make the two competing global governance structures better than ever.

The original version of this article was first published in the Addis Standard Magazine based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The author would like to thank the Editor-in-Chief Tsedale Lemma for the permission to republish this piece.