Bandung conference faces a new dilemma

Conflicting views on China’s rising influence likely to dominate summit.

HISTORY has come full circle after 50 years.

Developing countries, caught in the grip of the Cold War, met in the hill resort of Bandung, West Java, in 1955 to form a movement that was meant to keep them ‘neutral’ from the two superpowers – the United States and the former Soviet Union.

That meeting, the first Asia-Africa Conference, led to the creation of the Non-Aligned Movement in 1961.

From tomorrow, that historic gathering will be commemorated with another summit in Bandung – but with a key difference.

From the original 29, the number of participants has now swelled to more than 100 countries.

Searching for a raison d’etre in a post-Cold War world, the Bandung conference has clearly moved away from its original aim of non-alignment. Even staunch US allies and economic giants such as Japan and South Korea will be present as members of the Asian bloc.

China, which played a central role in the 1955 meeting, will likely to do so again. Prior to that gathering, there was apprehension about China, both in the West and among the participants.

Professor Amitav Acharya of the Institute for Defence and Strategic Studies noted in a recent article: ‘Some Asian governments which were facing domestic communist rebellions were fearful of Chinese subversion.

‘They and the Western governments, especially the US, feared that Chinese Premier Zhou En Lai would use the conference to score a propaganda victory.’

Today, Prof Acharya noted, there is another dilemma for the developing world.

Some in Washington advocate a policy of containing China through an intensification of military alliances built around the US. But Asean leaders have argued that such a policy will aggravate tensions in the region.

Indeed, diametrically opposed views on China could colour this week’s summit. But coping with Sino-US rivalry also allows developing countries, especially in Asia, to carve out a role in international politics.

The challenge for the Third World in 1955 was dealing with a bipolar international order. It stood between the capitalist US and the Soviet communist bloc.

It is very likely that the world order of the future will have America and China taking the leading roles. And most Asian countries now prefer to engage both countries rather than take sides.

While China looms large, the summit will also be dominated by other issues such as trade, poverty alleviation, United Nations’ reform and support for an independent Palestinian state.

The escalating row between China and Japan is likely to take centrestage.

The meeting will inevitably showcase the successes and failures of the developing world over the past 50 years. While Asianstates such as Singapore, China, India, Japan and South Korea have become economic dynamos, most African nations trail far behind.

For Indonesia, the 50th anniversary of the Bandung conference is of great significance. It was seen as a leading light in 1955, with then-President Sukarno flying the flag for the developing world.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono will be attempting to further raise his international profile at the conference following the successful tsunami summit in January.

Jakarta has been criticised for wasting millions of dollars on a conference where ‘nothing gets done in practical terms’.

But Foreign Ministry spokesman Marty Natalegawa said it would result in a ‘new Asia-Africa strategic partnership’. Its aim is also to assert the interests of 73 per cent of the world’s population.

Among the 60 heads of state attending the forum are Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Japanese Premier Junichiro Koizumi, Chinese President Hu Jintao, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and South African leader Thabo Mbeki. South Africa is joint host of the event.

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