Talking about prospering countries in Indo-Pacific region

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This handout taken on March 5 by the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit 2024 shows Asean leaders including Anwar (fifth left) in a photocall during the summit. – AFP photo

MENTION Melbourne, Australians and horse racing enthusiasts would automatically associate it with the Melbourne Cup – betting on their favourite horses and generally enjoying the company of people in fancy clothes and crazy hats.

Last week, another set of enthusiasts descended upon the same city for other reasons.

They were the participants of the Asean-Australia Summit, talking about prospering the respective countries in the Indo-Pacific region through the preservation of peace and tranquillity among the neighbouring countries.

Nobody was betting on which horse would win – the stakes were too high.

What may be lost, or won, are territories and wars!

At about the same time, pictures taken of two ships – China’s and Philippines’ – nudging each other in the South China Sea made the headlines. This is one spark that may lead to a conflagration. Touch wood!

These leaders gathered at Melbourne are from nine Asean countries, plus the captains of commerce and industry, and experts of all descriptions. They wined, they dined, they interacted, and they generally enjoyed each other’s company, making new friends and renewing friendships.

But their conversations inevitably veered into ‘the Sea’.

At the summit, our country was represented by our Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim. He had a sizeable entourage with him.

Any Sabahan or Sarawakian in the team? I am just curious.

The President of the Republic of the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos Jr was there.

For a moment, focusing attention on these two leaders, I am wondering if they had the chance to meet quietly on the sideline of the summit.

If so, did they broach the subject of the Philippine claim to Sabah? That would be of great interest to us Malaysians living in Borneo.

Our Prime Minister should whisper into the ears of President Marcos Jr: “Drop it, mate!

“There are so many ‘sultans’ in Mindanao, you yourself don’t know which is which!”

And then Marcos Jr would say: “Can talk about it later, Mr PM.”

Wishful on my part, but really dreaming that something like that would be true.

That would have been enough to start the ball rolling, followed by a formal meeting between the two parties to settle, once and for all, an irritating issue.

I don’t know why anybody still tries to pursue it after the failure of the claim of ownership of Sabah by the numerous descendants of a long-ago Sultan of Sulu.

But all is quiet on this front.

Needless to say, the solution to this territorial claim will augur well for much better relations between two neighbouring countries.

High time to move on!

Anwar and Marcos Jr would be long remembered as statesmen of the century if they would initiate discussion on dropping that claim once and for all.

That would save the future leaders of both countries the trouble to flog the dead horse ad nauseam.

There are better things to do in terms of prospering the people living around the Sulu Sea, the stakeholders are often forgotten because their numbers do not count in times of peace but will count in times of trouble.

Before trouble rears its ugly head, curb it. This is the right time to act.

Australia’s agenda

The Melbourne Summit is basically Australia’s initiative called ‘SEA Economic Strategy 2040’. It also encompasses the vital interests of all the Asean countries, especially littoral countries like Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, the Republic of Philippines and Vietnam.

The summit must have been a good avenue by which the Asean countries would assess Australia’s stance in respect of China’s assertion of territorial rights over almost all of the waters of the South China Sea.

To me, this face-to-face meeting is crucial in one aspect: who is my neighbour when it comes to watching a fight between two giants on the front lawn.

Which side are you on, mate? Neutral?

I think the leaders have done the job well and as expected they came up with a joint statement warning of the danger of any ‘unilateral actions that endanger peace and stability in the region’ (AFP / The Borneo Post on March 7, 2024).

The statement reflects the inner feelings of the summit participants. Couched in a positive language, diplomatic lingo, it really reflects a serious concern.

The statement: ‘We recognise the benefits of having the South China Sea as a sea of peace, stability and prosperity’, is a message of peace, but also a subtle warning that we shall not stand idly by if there’s a fight on our doorsteps.

The statement reflects the inner feelings of the summit participants: no war in the South China Sea, please. There are better things to do for the big powers, USA and China.

It also sends a subtle message that from now on Australia, and will count on her mates to stand together as we stood together in the past.

I am referring to the relationship between Australia and Malaya, North Borneo and Sarawak in the past, and its relevance to the current Malaysia-Australia relations.

This is a positive approach that conveys, in no uncertain terms, that the summit participants would be disappointed if their collective wish would not be heeded by the rivals for hegemony over the South China Sea.

That is how I read into the real purpose of this summit.

Like to bet on it? A quid each way, for a win and for a place?

Next meeting, please in Malaysia – Kota Kinabalu or Kuching?