‘The Indians are coming!’

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This photo, taken during the QUAD meeting in Tokyo in May 2022, shows (from right) India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, his Japanese counterpart Fumio Kishida, US President Joe Biden and Australia’s leader Anthony Albanese. — AFP photo

WHEN Malaysians talk, they talk about China; seldom about India and its importance to Malaysia.

Is it because we have no territorial dispute with India, while we have indeed an overlapping claim over territorial waters in the South China Sea with China?

Or are we taking for granted that India is not interested in what can happen in this part of the world where China’s assertiveness of rights in the South China Sea is viewed as posing restrictions to a free passage in international waters for all nations whose ships are passing through that sea on a daily basis?

India is an important country in the world for reasons that no other writer than an Indian writer can tell you. It wants to play a role of stabilising this part of the world now that it is a big power to be reckoned with.

While the nine-dash line drawn by China is not recognised by the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS), the arbitral tribunal set up under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), with respect to its claim over parts of the Spratly islands which the Philippines also claims as its territorial waters, Malaysians must not be so naïve to say that our territories in the South China Sea are truly protected by the Law of the Sea 2016.

China does not recognise this ITLOS ruling anyway. And it seems that might may be right; this is the uncertainty as regards safe passage in the South China Sea, until China drops its claim to ownership of waters within the loop, or redraws the dash line to exclude Malaysia’s economic territorial waters.

It is time we talk more about our relations with India too. Not just about selling our palm oil, but about other equally matters important to both.

Malaysian foreign policy-makers should think in terms of cementing the relations with India by showing interest in India’s vision: Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI).

Ordinary Malaysians want to know if their government has taken all the necessary measures to ensure their safety in the event of a blow-up in the South China Sea. They want to know when in need, who will be our friends indeed?

Both India and Malaysia (consisting of Malaya, North Borneo and Sarawak after Singapore left the Federation) are members of the Commonwealth of Nations. Both were colonies of Great Britain and achieved political independence from her after the Second World War.

History buffs in Sarawak must not forget about the fact that the Indian soldiers serving in the British Army had valiantly fought for Sarawak during the Japanese Invasion of Kuching in 1941.

Young people in Sarawak may not remember the fact that it was the Punjabi Regiment who defended Kuching against the Japanese troops who had landed on Sibu Laut before these troops captured Kuching.

The Indians are coming again! This time they are counting on us to be on board in terms of IPOI.

India is in the QUAD, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue created by Australia in 2007 as a key pillar of its foreign, and has brought together Japan and USA into a club of erstwhile enemies coming together to commit themselves to supporting an open, stable and prosperous region where we live.

Across the Sea, there looms a dark cloud created by two world powers vying for hegemony.

Note the presence of the old Pacific Sheriff, with a revolver at the ready for any trouble.

Political observers have been observing how India had initiated a number of public relations exercises to acquaint itself with the conditions of this part of the world, watching closely how well the Asean countries have managed to sustain the Zone of Peace and Neutrality (ZOPAN).

Incidentally, it was the Indian Prime Minister, Nehru, who had initiated this principle at the Bandung Conference in 1955.

Has it not occurred to anybody that there are millions of Indians who would love to play the role of advocating the zone of peace and neutrality for the countries in Asean and befriending those countries outside Asean such as Australia, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand, Fiji, Samoa and the rest of the Pacific Islands nations?

We must ensure that we will not be trampled underfoot if the two elephants come to blows.

And in case a fight is inevitable between the two big powers, we must know where we can find shelter that is safe. We do not allow ourselves to play the role of serving two masters; such a server is bound to love one and hate the other.

‘Live and let live’ should be our policy: a friend of all, an enemy of none. And India is a friend worth talking about from now on.