Indonesia has a good reputation in Africa, and it has the Bandung Conference of 1955 to thank for that.
Now that the South East Asian giant’s economy is slowing, its government seeks to intensify relations with Africa, according to Oliver Oehms, senior economic advisor on trade and investment on the business support desk of the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
But the Indonesian private sector isn’t particularly interested. It “is relatively indifferent about Africa, and concentrates on expanding in Asia,” Oehms told AFKInsider.
Indonesian firms have not invested much in Africa so far. Now, the Indonesian government
wants to change the perspective, using old and new rhetoric of solidarity, partnership
and mutually beneficial cooperation. Old rhetoric would include the legacy of the Bandung Conference. The New Asian African Strategic Partnership (NAASP) may add to this, Oehms said.
In April 1955, 29 Asian and African countries met in Bandung, the capital of West Java province in Indonesia, to discuss decolonization and boost Afro-Asian solidarity in the quest for independence against colonial powers.
No one expected the conference to have far-reaching effects, but its influence is still felt today.
In a “mythical moment, the combined dynamism of the newly decolonized, independent states of Asia and Africa monopolized the center stage in international relations,” according to Prof. Naoko Shimazu of the Department of History, Classics and Archeology at the University of London.
Bandung’s legacy is substantial and its spirit can still offer numerous opportunities for
cooperation on both continents.
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The “spirit of Bandung” refers to a 10-point political statement of the 1955 conference –the Dasa Sila Bandung (Ten Principles of Bandung). Key issues include mutual respect, mutual non-aggression, non-interference, equality and mutual benefit or peaceful co-existence.
The Ten Principles of Bandung redefined how to manage relations in the international system. This also provided the basis for one of the most important networks of intercontinental collaboration — a third way of cooperation during the bipolar era — the Non-Aligned Movement.
Indonesia and other Asian countries of the Bandung Spirit such as India and China can use a different tone when speaking with African countries. The ties that connect the two
continents, including the common struggle against the imperial colonizers, may offer
a more human face to developing cooperation.
Today, in exchange for Africa’s treasures (oil, gas, minerals), which it badly needs for
its economy, Indonesia can trade palm oil, textiles, electronics and cars. There is a huge demand for Indonesian-made Japanese brands, and the country aspires to become a significant global exporter of Japanese pickup trucks and other vehicles, as well as automotive components, according to TheFinancialTimes. One of the awaiting markets is Africa.
For more than a decade Indonesia’s regional and global profile has been on the rise. Although it always was an important actor in its region since it gained independence
from Dutch rulers in 1945 (full independence was given in 1948), it has returned “to the
ranks of the world’s most desirable emerging economies,” according to Michael Schuman of Time.com.
As of today, Indonesia is Southeast Asia’s largest economy with the world’s largest Muslim
population (210 million), and about 83 percent of its total population of 253 million.
It has enjoyed in recent years an annual growth of more than 6 percent, “underpinned by spending among its growing middle class,” according to Reuters. However, the data from 2013 show that the economy has slowed, and according to a World Bank analysis, the government needs to lay emphasis on “supporting exports to ensure that the increased international competitiveness generated by the weaker rupiah is maximized.”
Can trading with Africa contribute to a more accelerated growth for Indonesia? Is the
Southeast Asian giant involved with African partnerships that can result in mutually
beneficial economic outputs?
According to Statistics Indonesia (BPS), major African trading partners for Indonesia in
2011 included South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt, Algeria and Tanzania with a total trade volume of $6.7 billion. Other important African partners include Madagascar, Kenya, Benin, Angola and Ghana.
KADIN Indonesia, the Chamber of Commerce and Industry is the only nationwide umbrella organization representing private-sector interests.
“There are inevitable political commitments from the Indonesian government to intensify
relations with Africa, but for the private businesses Africa is still distant,” Oehms said. “They rather focus on the traditional markets: the U.S., the European Union, Japan and the ASEAN region. The trade pattern in this respect has not really changed in the last five years.”
As for Indonesia’s increased engagement within the international community, a potential
future step may result in joining the group of the BRICS countries — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.
Indonesia could become a serious candidate if it wants to. Joining BRICS would result in more opportunities for its processing or textile industries to expand in Africa.
Upcoming legislative elections will be held April 9 and a presidential election is planned in July.
Istvan Tarrosy is assistant professor of political science and director of the Africa
Research Center at the University of Pecs, Hungary. He is Fulbright Visiting Research Fellow at the Center for African Studies, University of Florida.