The Dawn of Asian-African Internationalism: India, China, and the 1947 Asian Relations Conference

Category: Essay 0

Between 23 March and 17 April 1947, the Asian Relations Conference was convened in New Delhi. In the aftermath of WWII, a moment in which the declining Western empires and the emerging independent states intersected, entangled, and collided, this Conference arguably sparked the rise of Asian-African Internationalism.[1] The latter movement soon became a distinctive political force during the early Cold War that pursued national liberation and postcolonial state building for the Global South. This essay offers an overview of the development of the Asian Relations Conference from its conception to its conclusion, with emphasis on the roles of India and China as the two leaders that addressed central concerns for Asian solidarity of the time, such as national economy, science/technology, women’s rights, ethnicity, and citizenship. In the following two decades, the monumental events in the postcolonial world, such as the Bandung Conference (1955), the Afro-Asian People’s Solidarity Organization (AAPSO, 1957–1965), and the ill-fated Second Asian-African Conference (1965) were all descendants of the same enterprise.

The future Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, conceived and developed the idea of an Asian Relations Conference throughout the end of WWII and the early post-war period. In August 1946, he delivered a speech at the Bombay branch of the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA) regarding his vision of post-WWII Asian regional solidarity. Nehru first gave credit to the 1927 League against Imperialism Conference in Brussels which became one of his inspirations for anticolonial solidarity. Nevertheless, he had no intention to continue the tendency of the League against Imperialism Conference that was sympathetic to communism and modeled on the Soviet party-state. Towards the end of his speech, Nehru instead laid out his utopian imagination of an Asian federation, which could ultimately lead to a universalist world federation.[2] The first step towards this goal was to open an international conference next year for Asian countries in the process of decolonization.

India had been developing its anti-imperial networks since the 1930s and throughout WWII, with Nehru emerging and triumphing as a leading and central figure in the pursuit of these networks alongside India’s political struggle against British and Japanese imperialism.[3] At the dawn of India’s political independence (1946–47), Nehru began to conceive a possibility of transforming the loose anti-imperial networks into a more substantial and formalized platform that would help Asian countries facilitate reciprocal understanding and further regional collaboration. He further demonstrated a deeper ambition to use India’s models of wartime anticolonial resistance and post-war socio-political reconstruction to enlighten other Asian countries regarding their process of national liberation. The collective project for Asian state building and national development after WWII, in the eyes of Nehru, should neither reference the example of US capitalism nor Soviet communism. Instead, India could share its soon-to-be postcolonial experience with the rest of the Asian continent, promote transnational unity of Asia inspired by its trajectory, and thus claim a natural leadership in the emerging so-called Third World.

Nehru was unsatisfied with the capability of the newly established United Nations (UN) in eliminating imperialism. He suspected the UN’s potential tendencies of preserving certain imperial interests since it had been founded by both the old colonial and new superpowers, such as the United Kingdom and the United States. This suspicion prompted him to look for an alternative “region-building” specifically for Asia that was also inseparable from India’s own political, economic, and cultural renaissance in the postcolonial era. The convention of the Asian Relations Conference was hence an epoch-making event that culminated in the development of the aforementioned ideas and actions. The preparation, organization, and coordination of the Conference were predominantly under the directory of the ICWA and financed by the Indian National Congress (INC). As the paramount leader of the INC at the time, Nehru indicated this background explicitly on the opening day of the Conference (23 March 1947) to imply India’s natural claim of leadership in this event. The ICWA then established the Institute of Asian Relations (IAR) as the supervisory committee that designed the Conference as a non-governmental platform for research, publication, lecture, group seminar, and even periodic colloquium. The ICWA subsequently decided and finalized the central themes of the Conference several weeks before its opening, including: (1) Asian defense and security; (2) Racial problems; (3) Intra-Asian migration and policies towards immigrants; (4) Transition from a colonial to a national economy; (5) Development of agriculture and industry; (6) Public health, nutrition and welfare of labors; and (7) Cultural co-operation.

The participants were primarily from Asia, including East, South, and Southeast Asian delegations, with minor groups from Central Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa. Some of these delegations were appointed by the national governments of the newly independent states, while many others were from countries yet to achieve full political and economic decolonization. Given the sympathy towards their countries’ current status, the latter delegations were still recognized at the Conference as representing their countries despite lacking independent governmental authorities. Therefore, the Conference’s members revealed a mixed package of professional roles, from government officials to diplomats, academics, journalists, political commentators, and cultural workers. The largest delegation came from India, with fifty-two delegates and six observers, followed by many Southeast Asian countries, such as Burma (seventeen delegates and five observers), Ceylon (sixteen delegates and three observers), Malaya (twelve delegates), and the Soviet Asian Republics (fourteen delegates and two observers), making up a total of four hundred attendees. Among them, the Republic of China (ROC) as one of India’s most significant neighbors, had also a major representation in the Conference and later turned out to be another central player.

(Asian Relations Organization: Asian Relations: Being Report of the Proceedings and Documentation of the First Asian Relations Conference, New Delhi 1947, Frontispiece)

One of the main issues the delegations discussed in the beginning was the necessity of building a permanent institution for the Asian bloc out of the Asian Relations Conference. A sharp divergence between contrasting opinions appeared in the first meeting of the Conference’s sub-committee. Delegations from India (represented by Krishna Menon), together with Burma, Iran, and Ceylon, endorsed the idea of a permanent institution whilst the ROC, Afghanistan, and the Philippines disagreed due to their concern of inappropriate timing and even suggested postponing such discussions to the second or third conference in the following decade. The majority of sub-committee members became worried that the initiative of forming a permanent institution could not be resolved at the moment and thus would severely affect the productivity of discussion on other postcolonial matters in the following week. Hence, all invited members in the third sub-committee meeting on 25 March 1947, including India, the ROC, Iran, Burma, and the Philippines, decided to move on by consenting to the proposition that the recently established Asian Relations Organization (ARO) as a product of this Conference, should remain an unofficial institution instead of transitioning into a permanent one rapidly. Furthermore, the sub-committee proposed to organize a Provisional General Council to be set up as a permanent body when needed. Although the delegates could not agree on the long-term institutional outcome of this Conference, the majority of the meetings in New Delhi reflected the intellectual and political vibrancy of Asian communities. The Conference was subsequently divided into multiple roundtable groups addressing a wide range of topics on postcolonial development in Asia and even the entire Third World, including economics, technology, arts, education, citizenship, and women’s rights.

The majority of the Conference delegations focused on the question of how to transition from colonial to national economy after reaching political independence. In Round Table Group C (24 March 1947), Chairman Solomon W.R.D. Bandaranaike (Ceylon) indicated that many Asian countries still had not built a national economy beyond dependency on the former colonial suzerains even though they already established a national government as a result of political independence. His statement caused strong anti-imperial sentiment among the delegates. Some delegates perceived the United States and Western Europe as the embodiment of imperialism, while others feared the Soviet Union as another “imperial power” due to their anti-communist nationalist ideological leanings. The Southeast Asian delegations were particularly concerned about them still lacking national political and economic self-sufficiencies amid decolonization. They took the advantage of the roundtable to further advocate the idea of a regional Asian bloc, especially regarding socio-economic development that favored a planned or socialist economy as a guiding principle, to fend off any continuous imperial exploitation from the Western powers.

The Southeast Asian delegations’ suggestion immediately met opposition from their Indian colleagues. The Indian delegation agreed to the ideas of planning national economy and industrialization for post-independent Asian countries, yet contended that the Southeast Asian proposal was too radical in the short-term and would frighten the European powers, and thus might escalate the existing mutual tensions. Such an escalation of conflict, the Indian delegation felt, would be neither practical nor desirable. To the Indian delegation, the Asian countries continued to be in a weak geopolitical position in contrast to their former colonizers and hence could not afford to risk an open conflict that would ultimately ruin the fragile foundation of their current pursuit for decolonization.

The ROC delegation intervened in this debate with its proposal. The ROC delegates first clarified that China was not speaking on behalf of Western imperial interests given that it shared concerns with other Southeast Asian neighbors regarding a weak post-independent economic system, although it had arguably built better national industries. However, the ROC’s position generally leaned more towards the Indian one. The ROC delegation also intended to avoid direct collision with the Western powers to not endanger genuine economic independence for itself and Asia. In the aftermath of WWII, the ROC urgently needed loans from European and American powers for its economic reconstruction and rejuvenation. Additionally, the Kuomintang (KMT, Chinese Nationalist Party) increasingly felt pressure due to the Civil War with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Nanjing was afraid that an openly escalated conflict between postcolonial Asian countries and the Western powers would disrupt the latter’s assistance to China’s post-war national development and simultaneously embolden the CCP’s revolutionary campaign at home. Therefore, the ROC delegation preferred a more pacifist and less expensive pathway that prevented radicalism from dominance within the Asian Relations Conference. By the end of the Round Table Group C, the ROC delegates suggested that the Asian countries could strategically maneuver the principle of free trade to strengthen their formation of a national economy based on cooperation rather than confrontation with foreign powers. They frequently emphasized that this proposal was not a surrender to Western imperial interests but a more realistic approach to developing an effective Asian continental bloc for building postcolonial national economies.

Alongside the discussion about the transition to the national economy, the Conference led to extensive conversations on related subjects such as agricultural reconstruction, industrial development, labor unionization, and social services. Nevertheless, these aforementioned aspirations required the fulfillment of in-depth scientific and technological modernization to accomplish any comprehensive change. In Round Table Group D (27 March 1947), the conference members envisioned a scientific revolution in Asia and Africa as an integral component of postcolonial state building and national development. The Indian delegation opened again the discussion. They warned against the danger of dispatching a majority of domestic Asian students to study science as well as technology in Europe and North America, instead of establishing and promoting alternative scientific institutes and technological training at home.

(Asian Relations Organization: Asian Relations: Being Report of the Proceedings and Documentation of the First Asian Relations Conference, New Delhi 1947, Facing Page 41)

The address resonated with other roundtable participants. The panelists hence discussed enthusiastically possibilities to enhance academic research and elite education between Asian countries and beyond Western influences. The ROC delegation suggested the formation of a regional bloc for intra-Asian scientific, cultural, and educational cooperation with China as one of the central contributors. The ROC delegates envisaged a new network of cultural organizations from each Asian country, with a central office to organize annual transnational conferences run by different national hosts in rotation. They also led the discussion about the possibility of constructing a federal-type inter-university institution for Afro-Asian scholarly exchanges including both faculty and students. Arguing that it would be in the best interests of Asian countries to reconcile with the historical influences of Western powers to achieve genuine progress in scientific and technological modernization, the ROC delegation foregrounded the importance of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as the platform for the reconciliation. Being amongst the five members of the UN Permanent Security Council, the ROC envisioned itself a vital role in this reconciliation process.

Apart from discussing questions of the national economy, science, technology, and education, the Asian Relations Conference equally tackled the subjects of women’s status and rights in Round Table Group E (2 April 1947). This roundtable was led by female delegates from Southeast Asia to the Middle East, who aspired to restore original conversations that had taken place in earlier founded organizations, especially in the All India Women’s Conference (AIWC, est. in 1927) and the All Asia Women’s Conference (AAWC, est. in 1931). There was an intention to organize more events after AAWC, yet the outbreak of WWII thwarted and halted the ongoing movement. However, many female members of the AIWC and AAWC continued their political activism to the post-war era. Several crucial leaders from the earlier movement ended up as key speakers at the Asian Relations Conference. They were predominantly from India, for example, Dhanvanti Rama Rao, Sarojini Naidu, and Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya. Nevertheless, there were a few other delegates from the Middle East and Southeast Asia, such as Madam Safiyeh Firouz (Iran) and Madam Paz Policarpio Mendez (Philippines).

The delegations in Round Table Group E further reviewed legislations for female marriage/divorce, and financial inheritance or social compensations for widows across the Third World. Although the ROC delegates did not take any lead in this discussion, they endorsed the above agenda heavily influenced by their Indian colleagues. They further linked the support for women’s rights to the question of the KMT’s legitimacy in modern state building by pointing to contributions that Chinese women had made to the ROC’s founding, expansion, and renovation since the 1911 Revolution. They presented Madame Chiang Kai-Shek (Song Meiling, 宋美齡) as a Chinese feminist icon who in 1938 had transformed the Women’s Advisory Council into the National Chinese Women’s Association, which became an effective organization for relief and rehabilitation during and after WWII. By flagging this example, the ROC delegation argued that gender equality in China was demonstrated by the equal contributions of men and women to the ruling legitimacy of the KMT’s party-state. Towards the end of the meeting, Round Table Group E decided to create a liaison committee composed of Asian female delegations for the revival of a regional women’s conference identical to the AAWC.

Although most roundtables concluded in temporal agreements, there were pending controversies not entirely resolved at the Asian Relations Conference. These controversies were often about racial/ethnic tensions among Asian countries manifested in the contested solution to the matter of nationality for overseas diasporas. In Round Table Group B (25 March 1947), the Burmese delegates criticized the possibility of the ROC government using overseas Chinese Burmese communities to further Chinese expansion of political influences in their country. The ROC delegate Wen Yuanning (溫源寧) rejected this claim explaining that Nanjing never had such schemes for Burma and other Southeast Asian neighbors. He described the Chinese Burmese as a community of predominantly business individuals who had no political involvement but wanted to peacefully coexist with other local ethnicities. Following Wen’s response, the ROC delegation promised to implement policies of curtailing excessive Chinese immigrants in Burma only if the country became overpopulated.

Although there were many disagreements in this roundtable, most delegations generally agreed that, “all citizens of a country irrespective of race or creed should enjoy equality, but a distinction must be made between those who identify themselves with the country of their adoption and those who choose to remain nationals of their mother country.”[4] This statement was a response to the case of Indonesia, where the nationality of the Chinese diaspora in the Dutch East Indies remained unsettled throughout the early decades of the twentieth century. The ROC’s attitude in 1947 was rather passive. The ROC delegates claimed that “in Chinese law, a Chinese who has resided for several years in Malayan and Indonesian territory and comes back to China, is required to re-register himself/herself in the latter country.”[5] Nanjing perceived the choice of ROC or local citizenship by overseas Chinese in Malaya, Burma, and the Dutch East Indies as more of a personal matter, and thus it did not have strong incentives for the related legal and institutional stipulation. There were discussions about “dual nationality” for the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia at the Asian Relations Conference, but they did not lead to any concrete resolution in the end. Almost a decade later, this subject was addressed again at the Bandung Conference (1955). As a result of the CCP’s military victory over the KMT in the Chinese Civil War, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was founded in 1949. The new PRC Premier Zhou Enlai negotiated with the Indonesian government and came to a conclusive settlement that resolved the “dual nationality” problem and allowed overseas Chinese to choose either Indonesia or PRC citizenship. The Sino-Indonesian Dual Nationality Treaty (1955) between Beijing and Djakarta later became the cornerstone for China to make ultimate arrangements with other Southeast Asian countries regarding the legal status of the Chinese diaspora communities in the region.

The Asian Relations Conference had successfully stimulated and spurred the ascendency of Asian-African Internationalism in the early Cold War. The movement became a unique force that engaged in the US-Soviet bipolarity while trying to overcome the constraints of the Cold War system by seeking independent diplomacy in favor of national liberation and postcolonial state building. At the initial stage, India attempted to use this Conference to display its ongoing experiences of decolonization and planned national development as a shining example for other Asian countries. Nevertheless, it did not make all the major contributions to the success of the Conference. The ROC had an equally crucial role in terms of intervening and guiding the Conference’s discussion and thus shaped the general discourse of direction for Asian-African Internationalism at its early stage. As the majority of existing literature on the Asian Relations Conference concentrates on the post-1945 Sino-Indian conflicts,[6] this essay argues that at the dawn of Asian-African Internationalism, both Beijing and New Delhi had more agreements than differences over the pursuit of postcolonial objectives by Asian countries. Both powers were convinced that the aspiration for decolonization was not necessarily at the expense of enlarging conflicts with the Western powers and the Soviet Union. And both revealed ambitions to pursue future leadership in the rising Third World. While India focused on showcasing its own developmental experiences for other Asian countries to emulate, the ROC was more enthusiastic about using its new role in the UN to mediate the conflicts and advance collaboration between the Asian and Western powers, in the name of national liberation and postcolonial state building within the post-WWII international order.

However, the intensification of Cold War politics since the early 1950s gradually swept away this moderate vision of decolonization. Following the CCP’s takeover of mainland China in the Chinese Civil War, India recognized the PRC as the representation of China in 1950. The PRC later developed its anti-Western revolutionary approach to Third World politics that attracted a constellation of followers from the Asian and African continents. The KMT escaped to Taiwan while continuing its representation of the ROC there. In response to the PRC’s diplomacy at the Bandung Conference, Taiwan committed to the establishment and transformation of the Asian People’s Anti-Communist League (APACL) as a counter institution that promoted anti-communism as a more legitimate form of national liberation and postcolonial state building for the Third World. Instead of seeing the Western powers as the ultimate threats to decolonization, the APACL contended that imperialism was represented by the Soviet Union and the PRC in the new post-1945 era, and this “communist imperialism” was instead a greater danger to the postcolonial world in achieving its anti-imperial ideals.[7] This anti-communist approach of Third World solidarity equally appealed to many newly independent Afro-Asian countries that rejected the left-leaning path of national emancipation.

Although India first cooperated with the ROC in the 1947 Asian Relations Conference and then with the PRC in the 1955 Bandung Conference, it did not embrace either approach of national liberation and postcolonial state building from Beijing or Taipei. Instead, Nehru was more interested in maneuvering the movement of Asian-African Internationalism as a distinctive force of diplomacy that was able to strategically co-exist with both the socialist and capitalist worlds throughout the 1950s and the 1960s. And thus, India had been often in a rivaling position against both the PRC and the ROC for the influence of direction on politics and international relations in the postcolonial world during the early Cold War. As a result, all the above approaches competed broadly for geopolitical and ideological power within Asian-African internationalism until the early 1970s.

Further Reading

Asian Relations Organization: Asian Relations: Being Report of the Proceedings and Documentation of the First Asian Relations Conference, New Delhi 1947.

Brian Tsui: The Plea for Asia: Tan Yunshan, Pan-Asianism and Sino-Indian Relations, in: China Report 46/4 (2010), pp. 353–370.

G.H. Jansen: Afro-Asia and Non-Alignment, London 1966.

Gopa Sabharwal: In Search of an Asian Vision: The Asian Relations Conference of 1947, in: Andrea Acri, Kashshaf Ghani, Murari K. Jha, Sraman Mukherjee (eds.): Imagining Asia(s): Networks, Actors, Sites, Singapore 2020, pp. 60–90.

Carolien Stolte: ‘The Asiatic hour’: New Perspectives on the Asian Relations Conference, New Delhi, 1947, In: Nataša Mišković, Harald Fischer-Tiné, Nada Boškovska (eds.): The Non-Aligned Movement and the Cold War: Delhi – Bandung – Belgrade, London 2014, pp. 57–75.

Vineet Thakur: An Asian Drama: The Asian Relations Conference, 1947, in: International History Review 2 (2018), pp. 673–695.

[1] On the history of Asian-African Internationalism see Loren Lüthi: Cold Wars: Asia, the Middle East, Europe, Cambridge 2020, pp. 266–286.

[2] Inter-Asian Relations, in: Sarvepalli Gopal (ed.): Selected works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Series 1, Vol. 15 (February 1946 – September 1946), pp. 560-566; see also Vineet Thakur: An Asian Drama: The Asian Relations Conference, 1947, in: International History Review 2 (2018), pp. 673–695.

[3] Maria Framke: Indian and Chinese Anti-imperial Networks in the 1930s and 1940s, in: Transimperial History Blog, 23 July 2021, URL: <>.

[4] J.A. McCallum: The Asian Relations Conference, in: The Australian Quarterly 19/2 (1947), pp. 13–17, here p. 16.

[5] Asian Relations Organization: Asian Relations: Being Report of the Proceedings and Documentation of the First Asian Relations Conference, New Delhi 1947, pp. 92–95.

[6] See for example Yun-yuan Yang: Controversies over Tibet: China versus India, 1947-49, in: The China Quarterly 111 (1987), pp. 407–420, here pp. 408–410; Brian Tsui: The Plea for Asia: Tan Yunshan, Pan-Asianism and Sino-Indian Relations, in: China Report 46/4 (2010), pp. 353–370, here pp. 364–366.

[7] Hao Chen: Resisting Bandung? Taiwan’s Struggle for “Representational Legitimacy” in the Rise of the Asian Peoples’ Anti-Communist League, 1954-57, in: The International History Review, 43/2 (2021), pp. 244–263.

Author profile

Hao Chen is a postdoctoral fellow at International Security Studies and the Jackson School of Global Affairs at Yale University. He specializes in twentieth century international history of East Asia, especially in the post-1945 era. His current project examines the rivalry between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Taiwan in the Third World, particularly how Beijing and Taipei competed for the legitimate representation of a postcolonial Chinese state amid the movement of Afro-Asian solidarity. Hao was the recipient of Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation Doctoral Fellowship (2019-2020). He received his Ph.D. from the Faculty of History at the University of Cambridge. Prior to his doctoral study in Cambridge, he completed his Bachelor’s degree in the United International College at Hong Kong Baptist University, and then a research degree at the Master’s level at McGill University.

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