The venue of the first Asia-Africa Conference, in Bandung in 1955. (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

Commentary: Time to Bridge Asia and Africa


APRIL 12, 2015

The Chinese believe that when a person reaches 60 years of age she/he has completed a full cycle of life. For to the Greeks, a marriage that has lasted 60 years is said to be enduring. Our lives revolve around the number 60: there are 60 seconds in a minute and 60 minutes in an hour. Sixty marks a special moment. And it is even so for the Asia-Africa Conference, which celebrates its 60th anniversary this week.

The AAC is one of Indonesia’s greatest diplomatic contributions. The Bandung Spirit 1955 (the AAC conference of 1955) was a testimony to our commitment against imperialism and the struggle to maintaining global order. Our forefathers understood that AAC is important to strengthen our own posture in international forums and has guided like-minded nations for greater freedom and dignity. The AAC has become the venue to mobilize support for and among developing countries.

But how can the AAC remain relevant for years to come? There is certainly no magic bullet but a short and practical answer is for the AAC to spine a greater “South-South” cooperation. But several conditions are in order.

First, transform the AAC spirit and its cooperation beyond the realms of international politics. Annual meetings of AAC can only remain relevant if it improves the real economy. The AAC must regenerate itself as the platform to lift both continents into new economic levels.

In that regard, Indonesia should lead by example and map out its own course for AAC. Start by endorsing our best state-owned enterprises to compete for new resources and business opportunities in Africa. State-owned oil and gas firm Pertamina is currently exploring new plants in Africa worth close to $3.5 billion and Perkebunan Nusantara, a state-owned agribusiness company, plans to divest its palm oil production to Africa. This can be a short-term solution for our own food security concerns.

SOEs in construction and development sectors have been impressive in recent years and can, therefore, look to Africa for greater opportunity. It may be the case that exporting our own SOEs to Africa is the catalysts for local entrepreneurs to invest and do business in Africa.

The fact of the matter is that distance, culture and economic interests between Africa and Asia are miles apart. Trade statistics between Asia and Africa are rising but they are rather miniscule. Most Asian countries’ bilateral trade with Africa could all be improved, except for China. In 2012, China’s trade with Africa reached $198.5 billion.

India’s trade with Africa is also among the highest, with total trade predicted to reach $100 billion by 2015. Malaysia, meanwhile, is making headway. Although Indonesia is trailing behind its neighbor, there is room for improvement.

Africa is a big continent with a big market. And they are demanding more trade in all sorts of goods. But it is primarily in manufacturing and textiles to which Indonesia can contribute greatly.

Second, extend the AAC as a platform for practical and security cooperation that is beneficial for both continents. It is not a secret that President Joko Widodo’s administration has its eyes fixed on “maritime” security issues and some African countries are struggling to combat piracy that has become a major stumbling block for trade. This too can be a starting point for a mutually beneficial maritime exchange.

Finally, underline the importance for deeper human relations. Most Indonesians could easily identify their connection with our African brothers from our national football leagues. But that’s far from enough. Why not reverse the trend?

Thanks to our economic growth, Indonesians are traveling abroad more than ever before. Africa can be that destination. We have historical connections with Africa and some of our largest Indonesian diaspora communities are scattered around South Africa and Madagascar, to name just a few. This could potentially be the “bridge” for both our peoples.

This is the right momentum to set in place real and immediate exchanges for Asia and Africa.

Budi Akmal Djafar is a Ph.D. student at the New School for Social Research in New York.