Next month, Indonesia will be hosting the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the 1955 Asia-Africa Conference. According to Indonesian President Joko Widodo, the commemoration aspires to remind the world that Indonesia played a significant role in the anti-colonial struggle. Amidst complex contemporary global politics, it will be a challenge for Jokowi to convince the world that this Asia-Africa gathering is necessary and relevant. Institutionalizing effective cooperation between the two continents should be a priority.
Ten years ago, Indonesia hosted the Asia-Africa Conference golden jubilee, out of which came the New Asian-African Strategic Partnership (NAASP). At that 2005 summit, Asian and African leaders agreed to revive the 1955 Bandung Spirit, whose one aim was to advance cooperation between the two continents. The NAASP expanded the form of Asia-Africa engagement from merely non-aligned and anti-colonial rhetoric to broader cooperation. Since then, there have been several projects and programs under the NAASP banner, from diplomatic training and technical cooperation to a business forum. Nevertheless, the NAASP receives little in the way of either public attention or political will. Does the NAASP really boost Asia-Africa relations? That is unclear. Certainly, interactions between Asia and Africa are growing, especially on economic matters, but they do not appear to be driven by the NAASP.
Asia and Africa currently lack any formal institutional links, despite the long-standing rhetoric of Asia-Africa solidarity. This is in contrast to Asia’s relations with other continents, which have been developed in institutions such as the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) and the Forum for East Asia-Latin America Cooperation (FEALAC).
NAASP did in fact try to institutionalize interregional ties. The 2005 NAASP agreed to hold heads of state/government summits every four years and a foreign ministerial meeting every two years, but neither actually went ahead. There were some meetings under the Asian-African Sub-Regional Organization Conference (AASROC) framework, but the long-term vision of this forum remains unclear.
Leaders in Asia and Africa have ignored the NAASP’s commitment to establishing closer contact. Individual Asian powers that see Africa as an enormous economic opportunity, approach African within their own national frameworks. Each Asian country pursues its national interests through bilateral engagement, such as the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, India-Africa Forum Summit, and Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD). Yet there are few initiatives for African countries to pursue what they might want from cooperation with Asia. On several occasions, South Africa has proposed the inclusion of NAASP into the agenda of the African Union (AU) and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), without success.
If the upcoming Asia-Africa gathering wants to be remembered, it should offer something fresh and substantive. Fail to do so, and the fate of NAASP will follow that of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM): a lot of rhetoric, but little that is operational or significant. The institutionalization of the NAASP should enable Asian and African officials to meet on a more regular basis. A routine inter-continental meeting could become a venue to exchange views and address global challenges, such as climate change, development and terrorism, areas that are usually outside the scope of the more economically focused bilateral format. This would in turn add to the weight of Asia and Africa, which already account for 75.3 percent of the world’s population and 28.5 percent of its GDP, on the global stage.
Institutionalizing the NAASP as a driver of Asia-Africa relations will not be easy, but it is feasible, especially if it is modeled after ASEM and FEALAC, which have a strong tradition of informality. ASEM holds a summit every two years with periodic ministerial meetings on foreign affairs, economic, cultural and other areas. FEALAC, on the other hand, has only biennial foreign ministers’ meetings and gatherings of senior official. Neither ASEM nor FEALAC has a structured agenda or any secretariat – FEALAC has a cyber secretariat, but it is more an online database and a source of information on FEALAC activities. Neither ASEM nor FEALAC aspire to become arenas for problem solving. Rather, they are forums for building trust and dialogue, with the potential to open up mutually beneficial opportunities for their members.
Taking ASEM and FEALAC as models, the countries of Asia and Africa could start to seriously explore an informal institutionalization project. Informality will provide flexibility and inclusiveness, enabling all members to contribute. Regular meetings between foreign ministers should be initiated in the upcoming commemoration, with an eventual target of setting up an intergovernmental forum – let’s call it “the Asia – Africa Contact (AAC).”
ASEAN and Trade as Drivers
If continent-wide interregional cooperation between Asia and Africa is too complex, then they could begin with ASEAN. The Southeast Asian bloc could have some relevance from the Asian side because it is the only coherent regional community within Asia. ASEAN has the profile to set a “Pan-Asian agenda” for engaging Africa. The 2015 ASEAN Economic Community, which aims to create a Southeast Asian-wide single market and production base, is potentially compatible with Africa’s ambition of establishing a trade union comprising three regional organizations: the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), the South African Development Community (SADC), and the East African Community (EAC) by 2016. ASEAN, or even broader East Asia, could engage Africa nations through this huge trade union, which covers 27 African countries.
A closer economic engagement between ASEAN with one, if not those three regional entities in Africa will not only help to solidify relations between the continents, it also has the potential to boost trade. Currently, trade volumes between ASEAN and COMESA, for instance, are still just 0.37 percent of ASEAN’s total trade with the rest of the world. Given a burgeoning middle class and demographic conditions in both regions, there is a huge potential market, are considerable unexplored economic potential.
A free trade agreement (FTA) between ASEAN and SADC could be one aim. SADC countries offer agricultural products such as fruit, vegetables, meat and livestock. ASEAN’s main goods are electrical products, machinery and automobiles, all important imports for SADC. These competitive advantages suggest an ASEAN-SADC FTA could be quite beneficial. For one thing, African consumers would certainly appreciate the removal of the relatively high tariffs SADC and COMESA apply to imports from outside their blocs.
An FTA between Asia and Africa would be challenging to achieve, but in the meantime countries from both continents should aim to improve people-to-people and business-to-business connections, who would be stakeholders in any future FTA. In this sense, the Asia-Africa Business Summit that will be convened on the sidelines of the upcoming commemoration is welcome, and should become routine. This kind of forum can improve trust in the business community.