Asia, Africa to mark summit that forged post-colonial path; these days it is anything but non-aligned

Some analysts argue the Non-Aligned Movement is more about big countries - China and Japan - seeking to unilaterally extend their influence.

ASIAN and African leaders gather in Indonesia this week to mark 60 years since a landmark conference that helped forge a common identity among emerging states, but analysts say big-power rivalries will overshadow proclamations of solidarity.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, Japan’s Prime Minster Shinzo Abe and leaders from several African countries, as well as Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani will attend commemorations of the 1955 conference that laid the foundations for the Cold War-era Non-Aligned Movement (NAM).

The original conference in 1955 gathered around 30 countries, many of them newly independent after decades of colonialism and foreign occupation, in the city of Bandung on Java island. It was led by Indonesian independence hero Sukarno.

Other prominent figures included Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, who were among leaders who founded the NAM several years later, an organisation for countries that did not want to take sides during the Cold War with either the United States or Soviet Union.

However the NAM has struggled to remain relevant in the post-Cold War era and as its member countries grew in clout, now representing a huge chunk of the global economy.

Some analysts argue the conference is more about big countries—particularly China and Japan—seeking to unilaterally extend their influence with other participants.

China, especially, has been aggressively forging closer links with Africa, whose natural resources help power the country’s growth.

“The bigger states have their own agenda coming here,” said Tobias Basuki, a Jakarta-based political analyst.

With more than 80 countries represented at the five-day conference, Basuki added that it would be hard for such a diverse group of states to reach consensus.

Nigeria’s Bolaji Akinyemi, a former foreign minister, said the original grouping served as “an incubator for emerging nations like ours at independence”, but he added that it was no longer needed as “nations have grown up”.

‘Grown up’

Ahead of the meeting, Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin hailed the “tradition of non-alignment”.

And, though most analysts remained sceptical, some observers said the growing economic strength of the participants showed evidence of renewed life in the movement.

“The conference feels like the non-aligned movement graduating to BRICS,” said Ernest Bower, a Southeast Asia expert at US think-tank the Center for Strategic and International Studies, referring to the grouping of five leading emerging economies, Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

However the conference has also been marred by the absence of key figures.

Though India was a major player at the first meeting, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is not attending; while South African President Jacob Zuma cancelled due to a wave of xenophobic violence at home.

The main leaders’ summit is on Wednesday and Thursday in Jakarta.

Along with the African and Asian leaders, a handful of Middle Eastern countries are represented, including Iran by Rouhani.

And several controversial figures will attend, including Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes.

Yemen agenda
Beyond the commemorations, Muslim-majority Indonesia will host a meeting of Islamic countries on the escalating Yemen conflict, as requested by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

Iran, part of the 57-member OIC, is a key ally of the Shiite Huthi rebels who have seized swathes of Yemen but denies arming them, as Saudi Arabia leads an air campaign against them.

The conflict has sent tensions soaring between Saudi Arabia and its regional rival Iran—the foremost Sunni and Shiite Muslim powers in the Middle East, respectively.

Yemen and Saudi Arabia are not represented at the conference, although several other OIC members are.

Meanwhile Japan’s Abe, a strident nationalist, is due to give a speech at the summit, which will be watched closely ahead of a statement expected later this year to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.

The five-day conference includes a ministerial meeting Monday and business summit Tuesday. It ends on Friday, with leaders heading to Bandung to commemorate the original gathering.

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