Asian and African leaders from more than 80 countries gathered in Indonesia in late April to mark the 60th anniversary of the landmark Bandung Conference that helped to forge a common identity among emerging states. The original conference in 1955 gathered 23 Asian and six African countries, many of them newly independent after decades of colonialism and foreign occupation, in the city of Bandung on Java Island. Back then, participants discussed issues of security and economic development away from global powers embroiled in the Cold War. The conference entered the history books especially as it was later coined the natal hour for the “Spirit of Bandung” describing the defiant mood of the newly independent countries amid the antagonist rivalry between the US and USSR.
The spirit was adduced in 2015, but in a completely different global and geostrategic setting. Asia is no longer wrought by conflict and turned into an engine of growth while Africa turned from the “hopeless continent” into the “hopeful continent” and is developing rapidly. Foreign direct investment and trade have increased tremendously between the continents, growing from $2.8 billion in 1990 to $270 billion by 2012.
The summit closed with leaders endorsing documents aiming at strengthening multilateral relationships between the two regions. The Bandung Message 2015 as well as the Declaration on Reinvigorating the New Asian African Strategic Partnership aim at nurturing strong relations amidst increasing global challenges, and to promote and protect human rights. Leaders also supported Palestinians' independence and the proposed two-state solution for the region.
Somewhat similar to 1955, Asian and African leaders were trying to position their regions on the global stage as they called for a new global order that is open to emerging economic powers and goes beyond the "obsolete ideas" of Bretton Woods institutions.“Growing together is a must,” said Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi. “One day we want to see that the cooperation will not only narrow the development gap among countries but will contribute to world peace and prosperity.”
The host country Indonesia emphasized that Asia and Africa need to improve their relations so that they can focus more strongly on the opportunities each region offers. “Africa is an opportunity,” said Yuri Thamrin, the directorate general of Asia-Africa relations at the Indonesian Foreign Ministry.
The official rhetoric during the summit mainly highlighted South-South solidarity. The realization of the Bandung spirit was realized through strengthening trade and investment cooperation. But some analysts argue – quite appropriate – that the conference is more about realpolitik in the sense that big-power rivalries will overshadow proclamations of solidarity and a few big countries - particularly China - seek to unilaterally extend their influence with other participants.
China, especially, has been aggressively forging closer links with Africa, whose natural resources help the country's growth. Sino-African trade volume increased from $12 million in 1950 to a record total of $200 billion in 2013. While leaders from both continents highlight mutual and reciprocal investment, in reality it is usually about Asian investment in Africa and not the other way round.
Africa, then, is definitely an opportunity for Asia, but these opportunities also create the risks of new dependencies which may be reinforced by a rather weak operational framework and little institutionalized architecture of interactions. While Asia institutionalized and cemented its relations with Europe via the Asia-Europe-Meeting (ASEM) or with Latin America through theForum for East Asia-Latin America Cooperation (FEALAC), the comparable New Asian–African Strategic Partnership (NAASP) remains a rather weak framework.
The crux of the whole matter became obvious, when Africa did not play any role in the supposable most important – at least most talked about – bilateral meeting at the Asia Africa Summit – the onebetween Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and China’s President Xi Jinping.