People walk in front a poster of prominent attendees of the 1955 Asian-African Conference on Asia Afrika street in Bandung, Indonesia, April 24, 2015. Leaders of Asian and African nations attended a commemoration ceremony on Friday marking 60 years since the commemoration of the Asian-African Conference.  REUTERS/Beawiharta

The Call to Relevance: Welcoming the AAC

Once again, Indonesia welcomes a commemorative summit of the Afro-Asian Conference (AAC). Delegates and leaders from more than 70 countries are expected to attend the week-long ceremonials, meetings, talks, and repetitions of events from 60 years ago, including the traditional leaders’ walk from the Savoy Homann hotel to the Concordia Building.

The event this year is probably well-known for the possibility of Kim Jong-un, the young North Korean leader, to attend the event (and his cancellation afterwards). Other than that, while the publicity is present, things are not quite the same. This year’s AAC is a far cry, no doubt, from the similar event 60 years ago.

In 1955, Indonesia was on the surprising path of becoming one of the world’s prima donna. Many Asian and African countries are looking for ways to free themselves from colonialism. China was dilapidated with domestic conflicts. Indonesia, of course, was the spearhead for the movement, managing to rally doubters to hold the conference in Bandung. The rest, of course, is history. The Ten Principles of Bandung, taking all five of China’s own Pancasila (the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence) along with five other additions, is now known as the Bandung Spirit.

60 years later, though, the host is in a rather different conundrum. Indonesia is hardly the leader now in the Asian-African struggle, itself facing a multitude of domestic and international problems. The world is rather preoccupied by the US-China power transition, if not economics in general or probably South China Sea specifically. A well-known academician in diplomacy, Geoff Berridge, said that the choice of venue in diplomacy is a significant symbol to find a diplomatic momentum. For this however, the choice is not to recognize a leader, it is more of a mere nostalgia, full stop. 

People also seldom realize that the raison d’étre for the AAC is now practically lost. It was first held to combat colonialism and finding ways to get independence. As today all of them (with possibly one exception) is independent, the raison d’étre is all but gone. The setting—Cold War—is no more. More importantly, the Asian and African countries have lost their common enemies—the best unifying factors—such as nuclear arms race and decolonization. What are we looking from the AAC then?

AAC, what?

To begin with, I believe no one is quite certain on what AAC legacies truly are. In many textbooks on international relations, the AAC (known to many as “Bandung Conference”) remains a footnote, if ever mentioned at all. It is rarely, again, if ever, explored on how the AAC influences the development of international relations in the twentieth century, other than saying that it gave birth to the Non-Aligned Movement (something that has lost its raison d’étre also). Even in various Indonesian international relations books, at most you will find AAC mentioned is on books on Indonesian foreign policy (the number of which is rather low). Doubters cannot be blamed, thus, if they question whether the “hype” of the commemoration exists only among the Indonesian government, or is it truly shared by many? It does, indeed, occupies a very minute spot in the history of international relations, in the academic realm, and possibly also in the policy realm.

Of course, the official tagline of this year’s commemoration is for the “south south cooperation”. At a risk of being partially theoretically Marxist and liberal at the same time, the term “south south” itself delineates a difference between the “global north” and “south”, a key term to the idea of “class struggle” in international relations. Cooperation and class struggle, to begin with, does not bode well together, unless with the stress of unity among the “southerners” to face the “northerners”. Even if, suppose, we are focusing on the “south-south cooperation”, indeed it has some potent absences that are neither Asian nor African, such as Brazil or Venezuela. The idea “south-south” cooperation is simply an idea way too broad, that itself still excludes some actors that can be the important determinants for the group. 

To add salt to the injury, I believe no one but the realm of policy makers (I doubt it, even) and international relations academicians understand completely what “south-south” means, other than being the catchphrase displayed on main roads in Jakarta and Bandung. I can completely understand people’s indifference to the commemoration, other than remembering what was written in their sixth grade history books. The term “south-south”, of course, is used to refer to various forms of cooperation between developing countries, that are perceived to be geographically located in the south (mostly, anyway), that are purely initiated by the developing countries themselves. It further strengthens the perception that the AAC is nothing more than a “high level political” event that serves the governments, but not the people.

It is indeed arguable that the AAC serves Indonesia’s various foreign policy interests, both then in 1955 and now. In 1955, it was important for Indonesia to gain leadership for these former colonies of European powers. Indonesia gained that leadership, and later of course, became one of the (now forgotten) midwife to the birth of the Non-Aligned Movement six years later. Today, as ever, Indonesia aspires to be the global power, and it seriously believes that the AAC is the correct platform to do so, despite the fact that there is at least another country that is considerably more preponderant in many (if not all) aspects of power than Indonesia (three guesses? China). The most rational thing for Indonesia to do is to show itself as a gracious host that welcomes its guests with smile and hospitality, and to show that Indonesia is an emerging economy, just like what President Widodo has elaborated rather eloquently during last year’s APEC meeting.

Skeptical, but not for what you think

Yes, I am a skeptic of the AAC, not because that it is not needed (unlike typical self-claimed moralists that stress how the government has spent billions of Rupiahs to hold the various meetings and events), but because the high likeliness that these Asian and African countries do not have any clear idea on what the AAC should stand for in the twenty-first century. Yes, both the south-south cooperation, independence of Palestine, and achieving Indonesia’s national interests are all necessary to be achieved. Nevertheless, it is doubtful that the AAC is the correct forum to do so. Aside from the pitched rhetoric, complicated but dull speeches, and carefully worded statements that may well turn into any “declaration” or “roadmap” at the end of the day, delegations will return home carrying nothing more than pieces of paper that stress nothing, commit nothing, and lead to nothing. 

Of course anyone can cite the fact that both the Asian and African regions possess about 75% of global population and around 25% of the world’s economy. In themselves, some staggering statistics. And it is an almost given probability that the AAC will focus more on economy. Does the AAC become of any help? If we see from trade relations, for instance, it remains true that intraregional trade still dominates, and any trade between Asian and African countries are truly limited. Indonesia, for instance, has no African country in its top five trading partners. Even a country that calls Africa its “second continent”, China, does not have any African country in its top export-import partners list. It is not a sweeping fact, though: many African countries do have Asian countries in its top partners list, but that shows how interregional trade is not yet the term for all. 

If these countries still want to have the AAC commemorated in the next five or ten years, it needs to find a new relevance, shared by most, if not all, of these Asian and African countries. I do expect either Indonesia, China, or both, will bring up the ideas of the Maritime Silk Road (China) or the Maritime Fulcrum (Indonesia). Why do not these countries, or the Asian and African countries in general, focus more on security and economic ties that may arise with these Maritime ideas? Both Xi Jinping’s and Joko Widodo’s ideas need both Asia and Africa to unite, not a mere “south-south” thing whose cooperation may stay on the normative realm. 

If only the AAC can be focused, for instance, to enhance interregional maritime security and economy, there are a lot of things that I think can be agreed upon by these very diverse countries. Eliminating piracy, ease of trade through sea, freedom of passage, development along the shores, are some of the issues that I think can easily get related to these countries’ interests. By this, both China and Indonesia can possibly “co-lead” the region, almost the same as in 1955, when both Sukarno and China’s foreign minister Zhou Enlai became the pivotal individuals that turned the peculiar conference a success. 

While some may say that such idea can be seen as a smart ploy of China to overpower both regions, I see it in a different light. The American skeptical view of the Silk Road and Maritime Fulcrum together is understandable, since it has an interest of keeping any potential power challengers at bay (the famous realist John J. Mearsheimer will agree on that). However, it is also highly possible that both ideas, when implemented, may bring enormous benefits to countries that choose to cooperate rather than not to. If the terms “Maritime Silk Road” and “Maritime Fulcrum” are not marketable due to their associations to certain countries, ideas of maritime security and economy will ring nicely with the countries. Certainly, China has its own interest to be a regional, if not global, power, and Indonesia has a similar aspiration as well. Yet if we see it in a bigger picture, it is a bigger focus area to push forth, rather than advancing some form of cooperation that no one understands.

I have also seen some ideas that the AAC should serve to unite the people of Asia and Africa against neo-imperialism from capitalism and exploitation, which I have pointed out above, sounds like a chant for war against the developed (“north”) countries. No, I think that is not the right rallying call for the AAC. Indeed, these kinds of issues should be addressed as well, but not in a bellicose mood like so. 

Some form of public education is needed as well. While I can commend the public diplomacy activities of our Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I cannot be certain if any understand why AAC is important now as it is then. Merely saying that, “You are still young, so you do not understand how countries then were not yet independent” does not help. Praising the success of the 1955 conference without telling people on what “south-south cooperation” truly means does not help as well. Proactively helping people to understand the significance, and the goal to reach is way better than merely being nostalgic and glorifying the past. In an era when more people are interested in what the government is doing, and with digital diplomacy, it is only natural if spreading the news on event this big should be done with a bang, not merely visits to one or two high schools that may or may not be interested at all with some history lectures.

To conclude, the AAC may lose its raison d’étre, but not the possibility of gaining a new relevance in the present century. Facing the so-called “Asian Century”, why not take the African continent to join Asia in a greater “Afro-Asian Century”? It is possible, if both regions are willing to step out of its incomprehensible “south-south” framework and challenge the world as their own. The conference also needs to find substantial ways so that the AAC and the Afro-Asian cooperation in general do create benefits for all countries in the region. The AAC needs to stop making itself a “talk shop” and delivers more. Better interregional trade, people-to-people exchanges, governmental collaborations, those are the things that we really want to see as results of the AAC

Thus, I sincerely welcome all delegates and participants to the commemoration summit celebrating the sixtieth anniversary of the AAC. I hope that you all can find agreements on things that are more tangible, substantive, understandable by many, and useful for both the Asian and African continents. I may be skeptical, but I do hope that you can find a new voice, new relevance for the movement in the present era. As the slogan of the 1955 shouted, indeed, Merdeka! Uhuru

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