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Australia-Indonesia Relations and the Legacies of Bandung

23 Apr 2015
By Associate Professor Andrew Phillips
A snapshot during the Bandung Conference in 1955. Image credit: Wikipedia (Ron4) Creative Commons.

After sixty years, the Bandung Conference still provides an important lesson for Australia on how to understand Indonesia’s world-view.

This week Indonesia hosts dozens of world leaders to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the Asia-Africa Conference, held in Bandung, Indonesia from April 18-24, 1955. From an outsider’s perspective, it is difficult to fully comprehend the importance of the Bandung conference for Indonesians. But Bandung represented a high point of Indonesian foreign policy leadership. And it remains a source of intense pride for many Indonesians. For this reason, appreciating Indonesia’s ‘Bandung legacy’ is crucial for Australians, as we seek to better understand our northern neighbour.

Why Bandung matters for the world

Bandung united representatives from 29 Asian and African countries – most newly independent – to debate the principles of global order.

The conference radically challenged the international status quo. Participants railed against European colonialism and decried the racism that sustained it. Likewise, delegates contested the special prerogatives Great Powers had claimed for themselves to maintain international peace and security, which had most recently been enshrined in the United Nations Security Council. Leaders such as Sukarno and Nehru also denounced the so-called colonial division of labour, which condemned the ‘coolie nations’ of Asia and Africa to subordinate status within the global economy.

From questions of national self-determination through to challenges of international security and economic development, the Bandung Conference systematically challenged Western-imposed international hierarchies. If Bandung didn’t doom European colonialism by itself, it significantly accelerated its collapse. It also laid the foundations for the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), and the G77 bloc within the United Nations.

For all this revisionism, however, Bandung also reinforced key aspects of international order. Western fears that Bandung would spark a broader ‘revolt against the West’ – and possibly even see the rise of a new Afro-Asian bloc outside the United Nations – proved groundless. Instead, in the Dasasila (‘ten principles’) of Bandung, delegates reaffirmed their support for core UN principles. This included a robust endorsement of universal human rights, as well as commitments to norms of sovereign equality, national self-determination and non-intervention in states’ domestic affairs.

Bandung’ s delegates were undeniably gravediggers of European imperialism. But they were just as importantly also midwives of the nation-state’s universal spread.

Why Bandung matters for Indonesia

Beyond its world historical significance, Bandung also left a profound imprint on the imaginations of Indonesian foreign policy elites.

Most importantly, Bandung helped consolidate Indonesia’s commitment to a ‘free and active’ foreign policy. Though the conference included key US allies, including Japan, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand and Turkey, security discussions focused strongly on the dangers ‘entangling alliances’ posed for newly independent countries. Even as Indonesia later drifted towards informal alignment with the United States following Suharto’s rise, Indonesia’s Bandung-era allergy to formal alliances persisted, as it does to this day.

With the traumas of World War II and anti-colonial struggles fresh in their minds, Bandung delegates were also intimately aware of the nexus between national security and economic development. Again, this has left lasting legacies in Indonesia. Indonesian ideas of national and regional resilience – which presuppose economic development as the foundation of social order and regime security – can trace a clear lineage back to the linkages between national security and economic development debated at Bandung.

Finally, the ‘Bandung legacy’ is important for Indonesians, as it reflected a time when Indonesia’s foreign policy vision extended beyond Southeast Asia to encompass the larger world. From ASEAN’s establishment in 1967 through the life of the New Order regime, Indonesia’s strategic horizons were firmly fixed on its immediate neighbourhood. But in recent years, Indonesia has again begun to imagine a larger role for itself, as both a ‘global maritime axis’ linking the Indian and Pacific regions, as well as a champion of political reform through its sponsorship of the Bali Democracy Forum. As Indonesia’s economic and strategic heft grows, Bandung provides a historic inspiration for Jakarta to again ‘think big’ in its foreign policy.

Why Bandung should matter for Australia

For all its importance for world history, and for Indonesia’s foreign policy outlook, Bandung is largely forgotten in Australia. This is a problem, because we cannot properly understand Jakarta’s world-view without appreciating Bandung’s continuing hold over Indonesians.

Australia was never officially invited to the Bandung conference, though Indian leader and event co-sponsor Jawaharlal Nehru made positive overtures and Australian Opposition Leader ‘Doc’ Evatt lobbied for us to attend. Our absence reflected our radically different history to most attendees. Whereas most African and Asian countries shared the common trauma of colonial rule, European Australia was the product of Western imperialism. And whereas Australia has since Federation sought security through alliance with a ‘great and powerful friend’, countries like Indonesia have historically been equally vigorous in seeking to insulate themselves from great power competition, through innovations like ASEAN.

These differences in histories and outlooks are important. They cannot simply be wished away, for they frame key differences between Australia and Indonesia, on everything ranging from questions of regional security architecture through to the eternally vexed Israeli-Palestinian dispute. In navigating our relationship with Jakarta, then, we must be mindful of history’s role in shaping our distinct foreign policy outlooks.

But equally, we should not let these different histories overshadow the shared values and common interests that increasingly bind Australia and Indonesia together.

Dasasila principles, including respect for the purposes and principles of the United Nations charter and respect for the sovereign equality of all nations, form a touchstone of Australian foreign policy just as they do for Indonesia.

Jakarta’s emergence in the past decade as a regional champion of democracy has moreover brought into far closer strategic affinity (though not formal alignment) with Australia than before.

And the remarkable counter-terrorism cooperation between Australia and Indonesia since the October 2002 Bali bombings testifies to the two countries’ ability to work cooperatively and consistently across the so-called ‘Bandung divide’ in pursuit of shared interests.

As we confront an ever more complex array of threats, from rampant jihadist extremism and resurgent Great Power rivalry to accelerating climate change, Australia cannot effectively guarantee our national interests without forging a close security relationship with Indonesia.

Understanding both how our distinct histories divide us, but also how our shared values bind us together, provides a crucial starting point for pursuing this vital enterprise.

Associate Professor Andrew Phillips is an Australia Research Council Discovery Early Career Research Award Fellow in the School of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Queensland. He recently helped co-convene a three day conference and workshop in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, on ‘The Bandung Conference and Beyond: Rethinking International Order, Security Identity and Justice in a Post-Western World’, with colleagues at the Universitas Gadjah Mada. Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi opened the event, which also featured Professor Amitav Acharya (American University) as keynote speaker. Papers from this event will be submitted with a view towards publication in a special issue of the Australian Journal of International Affairs in 2016. This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence.