As Indonesia hosts a summit of Asian and African leaders to mark the 50th anniversary of the historic 1955 Bandung Conference, it is worth recalling how worried the western world was when Sukarno, the Indonesian president, hailed the summit as "the first intercontinental conference of coloured peoples in the history of mankind".
The key western concern then was an emerging trend in Asia, led by India's Nehru, to find its own voice in international affairs, especially in a climate of rising anti-colonial sentiment and the emergence of communist China. According to declassified US documents, the Eisenhower administration feared the conference would "enhance communist prestige in the area and weaken that of the west". In London, the British worried that the "mischievous" conference could stir up "problems affecting national sovereignty, racialism, and colonialism".
With the support of Washington, Britain carried out a widespread diplomatic campaign to prevent the emergence of an Afro-Asian bloc, and "to cause maximum embarrassment" to communist China. British "guidance" documents, covering such topics as "communist colonialism" and religious freedom in the communist world, were passed to friendly governments attending Bandung, including Ceylon, Thailand, Turkey, Pakistan, Iraq and Iran.
What became clear in the aftermath of the 1955 Bandung Conference was the west's excessive level of neurosis about anti-western sentiment in what was then labelled the third world. The world has changed considerably since 1955. Some countries that attended the original Bandung Conference, especially in Asia, as underdeveloped nations have since enjoyed high economic growth and prosperity. China is now an economic locomotive of Asia.
Japan, for whom Bandung 1955 was the first big international conference after its defeat in the second world war, is seeking greater political and strategic clout to match its economic prowess. South Africa, excluded from Bandung 1955, is the co-sponsor of Bandung 2005. The widespread mistrust of foreign capital and demands for economic self-reliance that characterised Bandung 1955 have given way to greater receptivity to globalisation. At tomorrow's summit, neither colonialism nor communism will be big issues.
Moreover, no one expects a Delhi-Beijing axis of the type the west so feared in 1955. Instead, growing Sino-Japanese tensions challenge Asian security. But tensions and misperceptions between the west and the rest also remain, especially in a climate marked by rising anti-Americanism in Asia. The Bush administration's slogan, "either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists", has eerie parallels with Dulles' cold war slogan: "Those who are not with us are against us".
The 1955 Bandung meeting spawned the Non-Aligned Movement, thereby winning converts to the group of the so-called "neutrals" whose defeat was an important objective of western guidance at Bandung. Today, NAM has lost its original relevance in a unipolar world. But the Bandung rerun takes place amid rising Asian confidence, spearheaded by China. There is a move to create an East Asian Community that excludes the west. In 1955, Nehru faced resistance in advocating the engagement of China by the west and its Asian allies. Few in Asia today would deny that engaging China is likely to yield more benefits in the long-term than isolating and containing it. But today's sole superpower, the US, is worried that a rising China would threaten its global and regional pre-eminence. Can the west, however, afford to isolate and contain China in the way it attempted in 1955? At Bandung 1955, such tactics backfired; instead of causing "maximum embarrassment", a British Foreign Office assessment noted, the conference engendered "greater respect and sympathy with communist China". China's gains there were later squandered by its renewed support for communist insurgencies. Today, an economically rising China seeking to become a responsible regional power may have a better chance to lead Asia if the US continues to rewrite international rules to serve its unilateral interests.
Asia also needs to change its ways. At Bandung 1955, it accepted Westphalian sovereignty principles as unexceptionable in the face of communist subversion and superpower intervention. Today, strict non-interference is harder to justify in the face of transnational challenges such as financial crises, terrorism and natural disasters. But while increasingly discredited outside, the non-interference principle remains firm in Asian regional organisations. If Asia is to find a new voice in international affairs, a good beginning would be a decision by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations not to let its doctrine of non-interference allow Burma's military junta to assume the chairmanship of the organisation in 2006.
The writer, deputy director and head of research at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, Singapore, is writing a book on the historical legacy of the Bandung Conference