SINGAPORE — Indonesia recently brought together 80 leaders of the “decolonized peoples of Asia and Africa” to celebrate the historic 1955 Bandung conference of nonaligned nations.

In 1955 “the spirit of Bandung” moved historic leaders like Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, Indian Prime Minister Jawahral Nehru, Egyptian President Abdul Nasser Gamal and Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk to gather at the invitation of Indonesian President Sukarno. Held at a time when decolonization was gathering steam, it was dubbed “the greatest gathering of all time.”

The jubilee commemoration was undoubtedly one of the biggest Third World gatherings in recent times, although the Non-Aligned Movement, indirectly engendered by Bandung, now holds summits once every three years.

With Chinese President Hu Jintao and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in attendance, joined by an impressive group of Third World leaders, from an Asian perspective Bandung is significant today for four reasons:

* First, Bandung once again represents the rise of “Asianism,” as seen in 1955, whereby a solid Asian-African solidarity would propel the two regions and their peoples to face the decolonizing West. Now, there is no doubt that Asia is rising again, especially its two most populous nations, China and India, which are trying to reclaim their rightful status in the world.

The recent summit between the Chinese and Indian premiers, Wen Jiabao and Manmohan Singh, captured world media attention, as many political analysts hailed a “new Asian century.”

But, more importantly, Bandung saw Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi expressing Japan’s “deep remorse” over its aggression against its Asian neighbors. His statement that “Japan squarely faces these facts of history in a spirit of humility” appropriately set the stage for the upcoming 60th anniversary of the end of World War II.

South and North Korean leaders also met to discuss how to cooperate in their dispute with Japan over the Takeshima/Tok-do islands. Seoul also joined hands with Beijing to oppose Tokyo over a plethora of issues, ranging from recent history to Japan’s aspirations to becoming a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) permanent member.

Asia was thus firmly back in the news in Bandung, just like in 1955 when it was decolonizing.

* Second, Asia is in the throes of an impressive economic renaissance, which is providing the region with newly found confidence and self-esteem. Bandung in 1955 was the center of Afro-Asian pride; “newly decolonized peoples” then were exhorted by their leaders to “exorcise the ghosts of colonization” and take pride in themselves.

Today, Asia’s rise and pride are undoubtedly predicated upon its spectacular economic rise and social transformation, led by Beijing and New Delhi. In the 1950s, China and India’s economies each constituted only 4 percent of the world economy, but today their combined economies total 20 percent.

China’s growth over the past 15 years has been maintained at an impressive 8 to 9 percent per annum, whereas India has taken off within the past six years, with growth rates of at least 7 percent per annum.

This economic emergence of China and India has been preceded by and will be followed by other Asian nations.

* Third, Bandung in 2005 was again celebrated as the rise of the Afro-Asian peoples and tinged by anti-Western sentiments. China’s Hu called for greater South-South unity to face the North as an equal. Indonesian Prime Minister Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono used the occasion to placate rising nationalistic-cum-Islamic sentiments in Indonesia and reaffirm its place in Asia and the Third World, while calling for better governance. Moreover, Bandung 2005 brought together “controversial” Asian leaders (in Washington’s views), like Senior Gen. Than Shwe of Myanmar and North Korean President Kim Yong Nam.

The Bandung jubilee gathering rang with strident calls for more South-South cooperation and chastised the United States (and Europe) for the unequal spread of world wealth. Afro-Asian leaders also used the occasion to coordinate Third World positions on United Nations reforms, notably their choice of Afro-Asian candidates for permanent membership in the UNSC (India and Indonesia were heavily favored candidates), and Beijing advocated a greater inclusion of developing nations into the UNSC to “balance” the developed members.

* Last, the Bandung Jubilee Commemoration underscored a shift in strategic alignment in Asia, thanks to changing interests. As South-South cooperation develops, China, India, Indonesia, Vietnam and Pakistan could take the lead in lifting Asia out of its economic doldrums, reducing its dependency on the West and fulfilling the “Asian dream.”

Beijing’s current feuds with Tokyo are already provoking a “new” rapprochement between Beijing and Seoul to oppose a “more hawkish” Washington-Tokyo axis against Pyongyang, in the stalemated six-party talks in Beijing.

Beijing’s promise to New Delhi to remain “neutral and constructive” in the Indo-Pakistani conflict over Kashmir may eventually provide the political breakthrough necessary for Islamabad and New Delhi to improve ties. It may also stabilize the subcontinent and Central Asian regions, especially in view of Washington’s “democratic interferences” in Kyrgyzstan, Nepal and Myanmar.

China and Indonesia also announced a new “strategic partnership” when Hu paid an official visit to Jakarta after Bandung to seal a new alignment between the two Asian giants.

The “spirit of Bandung” could once again transform the world, 50 years after it moved the “decolonized peoples” to stake a greater claim in their own future.

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