Seventy years ago, from March 23 to April 2, 1947, India had hosted the first Asian Relations Conference (ARC) in New Delhi. India was then on the verge of achieving national independence from British colonial rule. Its interim government was led by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and he was the driving force behind the conference. The ARC marked the emergence of India as an important player in world affairs for the next decade and half. It also demonstrated to the world that Asia was awake and could no longer be considered as a marginal player in the post-World War II international order.
As the focus of world has now shifted to Asia, it would be instructive to reconsider the ARC in today’s changing times. This article seeks to revisit the conference and draw some lessons out of it for the current geopolitical scenario in Asia.
The ARC was organized in the immediate aftermath of World War II. Even though Europe was experiencing tensions, the Cold War was still in its initial phase and had not yet reached Asia by then. Colonial powers like Britain, France, and the Netherlands had retaken control of their Asian territories after the war and national liberation struggles were in full swing in many Asian states like Vietnam and Indonesia. Japan had been devastated in the war and Americans were involved in the rebuilding of the country. India was undergoing the sociopolitical stress and strain of the processes of political independence and geographic partition. Civil war was raging on in China and communism was on the rise. West Asia was facing the crisis of the birth of the Jewish state of Israel. It was in this context that India organized the first Asian Relations Conference.
The ARC was attended by delegates from all four corners of Asia. Many of them had not yet achieved independence. The conference included representatives from, among others, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Soviet Asian Republics, Indonesia, China, Korea, Mongolia, and Vietnam. Japan was invited but sent no representative; Australia and New Zealand were present not as participants but as observers. Along with the Arab delegation, Iran also sent a delegation to the ARC. There was a separate Tibetan delegation attending the conference, as it had not yet been annexed by China. Interestingly a Jewish delegation from Palestine was also present at the ARC, which led to predictable tensions with the Arab delegation. The presence of separate Tibetan and Jewish delegations at the ARC is significant given the international politics at the time and India’s foreign policy position toward these two issues later.
The conference was organized by India and hence the largest delegation was from India. It included prominent leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru, scholars like B. Shiva Rao, and scientists like Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar. The ARC was presided over by Sarojini Naidu, a senior woman politician and a poet from India, and the country’s preeminent leader in the freedom struggle, Mahatma Gandhi, addressed the conference. But the real driving force behind the conference was Jawaharlal Nehru. He was India’s voice on foreign affairs even before its independence. His enthusiasm about the ideas of Asian solidarity and unity, a frequent theme in his writings and speeches, was reflected in the conference.
Present-day Asia and its elites could draw some lessons from Nehru’s address at the conference. He spoke about the future course for the region and the forces shaping “this dynamic Asia.” Speaking at the conference, Nehru declared that “we have no designs against anybody; ours is the great design of promoting peace and progress all over the world.” On the issue of nationalism, he warned that “nationalism has a place in each country and should be fostered, but it must not be allowed to become aggressive and come in the way of international development.”
He was confident that “in this crisis of world history, Asia will necessarily play a vital role.” Nehru argued that even if the conference would not achieve anything substantial, “the mere fact of its taking place is itself of historic significance.”
The conference discussed five major themes concerning Asia: national freedom movements, racial and migration related issues, socioeconomic development, culture, and women’s issues. It is significant to note that there was no discussion of the problems of peace and security in post-war Asia or the engagement of extra territorial great powers in the region. Defense and security were initially proposed for the agenda but were not discussed.
The conference decided to set up the Asian Relations Organization as a permanent secretariat. But the idea of Asian solidarity could not be taken forward much after the conference was over. In 1947, military alliances and Cold War politics had not yet engulfed Asia. In that context it seemed easy for Asians to come together and discuss sociopolitical problems affecting the region. But as the Cold War reached Asia in the early ’50s, this spirit of Asian solidarity and unity vanished in the increased fragmentation of the continent.
Still, organizing the ARC had implications for Indian foreign policy for the following decade. The ARC set the tone for the course of foreign policy India would take in the post-independence years. It marked the rise of a new India as an influential player in Asia and the world. Jawaharlal Nehru would oversee India’s foreign policy for the next 17 years with considerable success and some failures.
The ARC was the first step in India’s ambitious and multilateral diplomatic outreach of India the late ’40s and early ’50s. India would go on to form the Colombo Powers group and later play an important part in arranging the Afro-Asian summit in 1955. This process culminated in 1961 in the first Non-Aligned Summit at Belgrade, which kicked off the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). In all these initiatives, India was a pivotal player, leading other marginal players and smaller powers from Asia and Africa. India tried to project itself onto the world stage consistently in the decade following its independence. The ARC, Colombo Powers group, Afro-Asian summit, and Non Aligned Summit were all ventures where India could play a larger role in world affairs as well as meet its national interests in its Asian neighborhood.
Looking back now to the ARC, it is clear that it did not succeed in bringing any degree of Asian solidarity as was hoped. Cold War politics drove Asian states apart. Narrow national interests took over and the internal problems of state building consumed much energy of Asian states. But now may prove a good time to try again.
In the last two decades, Asia has become increasingly integrated in the economic sphere, and the continent is moving toward regional integration efforts. The regional grouping of Southeast Asia, the Association of South East Asian nations (ASEAN), is leading that endeavor. Yet the region faces deeper political-security problems that complicate relations among important states like Japan, China, and India. There are various forums like the East Asia Summit, Shangri-La, and Raisina Dialogue to discuss problems of security in Asia. But amidst rising tensions, Asia needs some sort of a permanent institutional mechanism, as was envisaged at the ARC, to discuss its own problems. Such a mechanism for discussing interstate, regional defense, and security-related issues is yet to emerge in Asia. It is in this context that Asia needs an initiative like the ARC now more than ever.
Sankalp Gurjar is a PhD candidate at South Asian University, New Delhi.