Building bridges

Print edition : May 20, 2005

The Asian-African Summit, primarily convened to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the historic Bandung Conference, calls for "a momentum in achieving peace, prosperity and progress" and "dynamic partnerships" among the countries of the region to achieve these goals.

IMPRESSIVE indeed is the revival of the "Bandung Spirit" that the leaders of Asia and Africa accomplished during their summit in Jakarta on April 22 and 23 and at the appointed hour of the follow-up event on April 24 - the "walk" down memory lane in Bandung, the capital of the Indonesian province of West Java.

Chinese President Hu Jintao, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh leading a walk to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Bandung Conference in West Java.-BEAWIHARTA/REUTERS

Over 40 top leaders walked along the same stretch of the road map in Bandung that their considerably smaller band of predecessors traversed, exactly 50 years ago, to participate in their historic meeting at Gedung Merdeka (the Citadel of Freedom, in a political sense). A `walk' down memory lane could not have been more of a virtual reality.

The fine-tuned bonhomie of the carefully choreographed diplomacy did not, however, conceal the current hiatus between China and Japan, but the leaders of these two countries succeeded in bringing down the soaring temperature of tensions on their bilateral front . In a sense, the cameo of a "summit within the Summit", which brought Chinese President Hu Jintao and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi for a direct and candid exchange of views in camera, had something to do with the resonance of the revived "Bandung Spirit". Koizumi had earlier offered, at the main conference, an unconditional apology for imperial Japan's aggression and atrocities against China and other Asian countries. This helped Hu Jintao express the hope that his meeting with Koizumi could become a new "turning point" in bilateral relations.

The new dream is a "concert" of Asian-African nations to face the challenges of globalisation at this critical moment in the uncoordinated multilateral efforts to reshape the world order in the inter-related domains of politics, strategic affairs and socio-economic well-being. Towards this end, the leaders crafted a New Asian-African Strategic Partnership (NAASP) and signed the relevant document at the Bandung session. Envisioned to provide "a momentum in achieving peace, prosperity and progress", a charter of "Three Ps", the NAASP document spelt out some ideals and a few principles for "practical cooperation". A relevant "Action Plan", too, was adopted.

Visualising the Asia-Africa region as a zone "at peace with itself and with the world at large", the leaders called for feasible but "dynamic partnerships" at various levels among clusters of countries from the two continents. The existing initiatives, such as those that Japan or China or India or Indonesia had already forged for cooperation with Africa or among the non-aligned and South-South countries, should be streamlined, while duplication must be avoided, the NAASP document said.

However, with the leaders breaking no new theoretical or practical ground in seeking to extend the frontiers of the "Three Ps" in the Asia-Africa region, the reaffirmation of their collective faith in the U.N. Charter and the process of multilateralism acquired some sense of urgency on a singular count. This relates to the unfolding context of expectations that the world body itself could be reformed to reflect the realities of the early phase of the 21st century instead of being anchored to the skewed visions of the self-styled victors of the Second World War.

As an essentially commemorative event, the Asian-African Summit did help turn the focus on the montage of events that changed the global political scene in dramatic ways since the mid-1950s. Within Asia, Jawaharlal Nehru played a well-chronicled role at the Bandung conference in 1955 as a statesman who had the stature to "introduce" the People's Republic of China as not only a rising power but also a responsible and trustworthy nation. Today, in striking contrast, China is the colossus on the Asian-African scene.

India has certainly not lost its primacy in this intercontinental setting, given especially its newly minted image as a reservoir of knowledge-related human resource and resourcefulness. However, the centre of gravity on the Asian-African political front has clearly shifted away from India.

In a sense, it is not necessary to compare and contrast India and China against the backdrop of Bandung 1955 and Bandung 2005, given the incremental rapprochement between the two countries. However, aspects of India's diplomatic evolution did come into sharp focus. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan attended the latest Jakarta summit and held "brain-storming" consultations with the assembled Foreign Ministers of Asian and African countries on the ways to reform the world body. India made its voice felt at this session.

In the mid-1950s, Nehru pioneered the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in collaboration with Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt and Marshall Tito of Yugoslavia, against the backdrop of the Bandung conference of that period which featured the then Indonesian leader, Sukarno, as the prime mover for Afro-Asian cooperation. It was in the political milieu of non-alignment as an evolving policy perspective that Nehru reportedly did not respond positively to the idea, said to have been proposed by Soviet leader Nikolai Bulganin in June 1955, that Moscow could suggest India's inclusion, though at a later stage, as an additional permanent member of the U.N. Security Council.

The People's Republic of China was then outside the U.N. framework because of Washington's political prejudices, and the sustained support India extended for China's admission to the world body is well known. Today China, having played its geopolitical cards astutely and with foresight, is the only permanent member of the U.N. Security Council from the Asia-Africa region. China, like the other permanent members, holds the veto power.

Significantly now, External Affairs Minister K. Natwar Singh made a forceful intervention during Kofi Annan's consultations, calling for a rational reform of the U.N. Criticising the current move initiated by certain quarters in the international community to create a new tier of permanent members without veto power, Natwar Singh argued that there was "no rationale" for any proposition of this kind. Any such move, he said, "would defeat the very objective of the democratisation of the U.N. body". He was referring to the democratisation of the U.N. within the reality that the present permanent members "may not accept any curtailment of their veto powers".

It will be fallacious to see this aspect of the evolution of India's diplomacy as a tectonic shift from a certain power-related equanimity, as regards the United States-led and Soviet-sponsored blocs of the Cold War era, towards a power-conscious insistence on the veto entitlement as a possible member of a new coterie of governors of the world.

The simple but profound factor at work goes beyond the perceived power differential between India and China at the U.N., given the aspirations of Japan, Indonesia and South Africa for their rightful places in the only global organisation. While Indonesia and South Africa co-chaired the Jakarta and Bandung events under an Asian-African formula mooted by Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Japan raised its profile at these meetings by turning the spotlight on its economic diplomacy and seeking a new modus vivendi regarding China.

In this context of a robust competition for rightful places in a possible global order with reforms, the quest for a seat at the high table of the Security Council has come to acquire the "moral" overtones of the Indian campaign against the discriminatory character of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). While the earlier Indian objections centred on the NPT's discriminatory division of the world into the "nuclear haves and have-nots", its current concerns relate, in part, to the additional argument of the nuclear powers that the treaty cannot be revised so as to reward "proliferators" such as India or Pakistan. As it became evident at Jakarta, India increasingly tends to see the veto right of the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council in a similar light.

At the same time, even some non-U.S. Western analysts like Gilles Boquerat tend to reckon that major regional powers such as China, Russia and India "are nowadays fighting for the attention of the global dominant power, the United States". While India and China, among others, are aware of the unilateral moves of the U.S. as today's sole superpower, these countries have now indicated at Jakarta and Bandung that they do not think that they should kowtow before the U.S.

Hu Jintao called for "a new type of Asian-African strategic partnership" on the basis of "political solidarity, economic cooperation and social-cultural relations". Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was keen that Asia and Africa should not miss the wood for the trees by shining the spotlight only on the key but well-known areas of mutual cooperation.

Of prime importance among Manmohan Singh's proposals was the call for constructive ideas to promote energy-related cooperation among the Asian and African countries. The objective, he pointed out, was to move away from the risk-prone dependence of these countries on the Western states and companies which, by concerted actions or even independently, tend to control the production and consumption of various forms of energy. In his view, the Asian and African continents are collectively capable of harnessing the sources of energy available on their home turf, especially when some of the big consumers also belong to this vast region.

Manmohan Singh may have, arguably, articulated the idea before the Asian and African countries to fashion sufficient political solidarity to try and break the Western monopoly over the patterns of production and consumption of energy worldwide. However, his futuristic thinking was reflective of the willingness of some Afro-Asian leaders to think out of the box, without having necessarily to "fight" among themselves for the "attention" of the U.S. on all issues.

In some contrast, the U.S., of course, is particularly important to India and others in its category regarding the question of permanent membership in the Security Council, with or without the same prerogatives as the present caucus in it. On the other hand, Pakistan and South Korea, which belong to the so-called "Coffee Club", are opposed to the enlargement of permanent membership. These countries, which call for "consensus" on the whole gamut of issues of U.N. reforms, made their presence felt in Jakarta.

China, too, appears inclined to consider the formula of "consensus", even while having indicated its endorsement of India's credentials. Citing Russia's categorical support for India's admission as a new permanent member with veto power, Natwar Singh suggested to Kofi Annan that there should be "clarity" about the idea of "consensus" lest it should delay the reform process.

The overall impact of India's participation in the Asian-African summit will be proportionate to its current capabilities to translate its "soft power" of ideas into some definitive action in the realms of "hard power" (other than military prowess). Within a pivotal sub-region of the vast Asia-Africa domain, India has now been invited to attend the first-ever East Asia Summit (EAS), scheduled to be hosted by Malaysia towards the end of this year. Being primarily the initiative of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), the EAS will be attended by all the 10 members of this regional grouping besides China, Japan and South Korea.

Although the decision to invite India was taken by the ASEAN prior to the summits in Jakarta and Bandung and without any reference to these events, India would certainly benefit from its implicit recognition as a regional player on a par with China, Japan and South Korea. The "EAS process", to consist of a series of summits and to be piloted by ASEAN from its vantage position in "the driver's seat", is aimed at creating an East Asian Community in due course.

OF the bilateral meetings that Manmohan Singh held on the margins of the Jakarta-Bandung summit, the one with King Gyanendra of Nepal turned out to be the most newsworthy. It was indicated, after the meeting, that India agreed to lift its arms embargo on Nepal. The embargo was imposed in February as some form of sanctions (without that loaded phrase being officially applied), immediately after the King staged a virtual coup by suspending the democratic process for the ostensible purpose of being able to fight the raging "Maoist insurgency" in Nepal. With Manmohan Singh appearing to permit Nepal to receive at least a specific consignment of arms, which was already in the pipeline when the embargo was imposed, questions about India's realpolitik regarding the Himalayan kingdom came to the forefront, with no definitive answers known.

Manmohan Singh's meeting with Hu Jintao in Jakarta on April 23 was noteworthy for its timing as a quick and substantive follow-up, at the highest echelons, given that Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao had paid a visit to India only a few weeks earlier, setting a new direction and tone in the process of China-India rapprochement (Cover Story, Frontline, May 6).

April 18, 1955: The opening ceremony of the Bandung Conference.-AP

During the brief conversation that Manmohan Singh held with Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf at the time of the banquet that the Indonesian President hosted for the leaders, the new mood of positive expectations on the India-Pakistan front was very much in evidence. It was also a matter of satisfaction to India that General Musharraf did not rake up the Kashmir issue or any other matter of a purely bilateral nature during his address to the main conference. This was, in a sense, reminiscent of the manner in which Pakistan, as a co-sponsor of the original Bandung conference, kept its counsel on the Kashmir issue to itself, without calling on the then emerging Asia-Africa fraternity to intervene or otherwise influence India, which was the lead player at that time along with Indonesia.

It is a measure of the changed political realities that some of the other key sponsors of the original event, Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) or Myanmar (then Burma) or even Egypt, did not make a similar impact on the larger gathering this time round. While this certainly is no reflection on their respective strengths, the larger fact is that the idea of NAASP has been conceived in a totally new international ambience.

As the Indonesian President said in his inaugural address, NAASP would fill a gap in the existing architecture of international politics. Yudhoyono said that the American and European continents were linked by the trans-Atlantic engagement and the Asian and American continents were, in a sense, brought together by the Asia-Pacific linkages. He noted, however, that such arrangements might be incomplete or insufficient in their scope. Despite the success of the original Bandung Conference, the Asian and African continents drifted apart, in a political sense, after the prime concerns of the 1950s, such as decolonisation and racial discrimination (particularly, apartheid) were gradually redressed.

It was in this context that Yudhoyono underlined that NAASP would, for the first time, establish a firm dialogue and other forms of cooperation between Africa and Asia. NAASP would be the much-needed "bridge across the Indian Ocean", he noted. The agreement to hold Asia-Africa summits every four years and initiate other interactions across a spectrum of political and economic zones is aimed at firming up this "bridge across the Indian Ocean".

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