Diplomatic summits famously began in 19th century Europe. Vienna, Berlin, Paris were the venues for summits that shaped imperial Europe. All that changed with the 1940s. Starting with the Asian Relations Conference in 1947, there have been a large number of summits in the west and the east. And there were some summits — Bandung, Indonesia, in 1955, for example — that become notable because they prepared the ground for making history. The G20 (Group of Twenty) summit in Bali, coming 67 years after the Bandung conference is expected to be one such defining meeting because it comes in the backdrop of nearly three years of a global pandemic and the return of war in Europe that’s jolted post-World War II international politics and economy.
The excitement over the Bali summit, on November 15-16, has been mainly because of the fact that this is the first time that the Russian leadership would participate in an international summit alongside Western leaders since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis. The summit in Bali has brought back memories of the Bandung conference because political intrigues involved in both the cases threatened to jeopardise the summits themselves. The Bandung conference is remembered as it gave the clarion call for decolonised countries to form a separate block but it was in fact presaged by a great deal of intrigue and suspense.
The build-up to Bandung
India and Indonesia both had gained independence in the decade prior to the Bandung conference. India’s national struggle was predominantly non-violent while the Indonesian struggle for independence was an armed insurrection. The Bandung conference was preceded by months of anxious diplomacy in the West as it was the first time that Algerian nationalist fighters, the National Liberation Front (FLN), were to participate in such an international conference. Presence of FLN representatives at Bandung provided much required thrill and excitement to the summit, which remains a landmark in diplomacy. For France and its supporters the presence of the guerrilla leaders amounted to granting them international legitimacy. Intense lobbying took place in several Asian and Western capitals to prevent that from happening, but finally the Algerians did participate in Bandung.
The Bali G20 conference had generated excitement for the reasons mentioned above. In July when the Foreign Ministers-level meeting was held in Bali, the resultant discord gave a glimpse of what might happen if Russian and Western leaders were to come face to face with each other. During the meeting, Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, and his Western counterparts literally addressed separate gatherings while attacking each other. It was clear that the actual summit could be stormier if Russian President Vladimir Putin were to come face to face with U.S. President Joe Biden or U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and the representatives of the European Union who have taken a strong anti-Russia position over Ukraine. However, Indonesian President Joko Widodo has indicated that President Putin may participate only virtually.
With that announcement, which came after Mr. Widodo spoke to Mr. Putin over the phone, it appears that the actual summit may be spared a real diplomatic storm. While that might provide some respite to the hosts, the absence of Mr. Putin could also rob the world of an opportunity to have a real discussion on finding a solution to the Ukraine crisis.
The Bandung conference did not just have tension over the presence of anti-France Algerian guerrilla leaders. There was also the issue of Israel and Palestine which cast a long shadow. And at the end of the summit a Chinese decoy aircraft was blown up that nearly created an international crisis, sucking India, China, Egypt and the U.K. into a vortex. The aircraft was expected to fly Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai back home, and it was suspected that the Western intelligence agencies were involved in the sabotage.
Importance of taking risk
But chances of stormy confrontation and angry exchanges did not deter the participation in Bandung of a large number of delegates who were not yet fluent in diplomatic language. Every prominent leader of that time – Jawaharlal Nehru, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Sukarno – had taken a great deal of risk in participating in the conference, but it ultimately gave a breathing space to Third World countries and provided stability to the Cold War-afflicted world. Algeria would finally gain independence in 1962. The conference as such did not reduce Algeria’s suffering but it did maintain the dynamism of decolonisation of which Algeria was just another chapter.
The message of Bandung is that such tension and anxiety ahead of a major summit may appear overwhelming, but these factors often provide an opportunity for dialogue that is in the interest of the rest of the world. The possibility of Mr. Putin skipping the summit and favouring a virtual participation may take an historic opportunity away from Bali.
The opportunity appeared particularly bright as the G20 summit, mainly a forum for economic ideas, was for once faced with an inescapable choice to become a platform for political negotiation among the great powers over a stalemated war that is increasingly adding to volatility in world affairs.
The G20 summit in Bali is vastly different from the Bandung conference in terms of its global financial goals. Bandung was aimed at providing space for the emerging post-colonial economies, while G20 aims at firming up the digitally connected global capitalist system. Despite the differences, the real lesson that Bandung 1955 leaves for Bali 2022 is that a summit can become historic only if it overcomes the critics and provides space for a frank – even stormy – exchange of views.