MALAYSIA’S foreign policy behaviour is guided by the ‘jazira’ factor of the Malay Peninsula situated in the country’s western region, and the ‘nusantara’ factor of the Malay Archipelago situated in the country’s eastern region.
Jazira is the Arabic equivalent of ‘semenanjung’ in Malay or peninsula in English; whereas ‘nusantara’ is an old Javanese term describing the maritime region of Southeast Asia.
Malaysia’s ‘jazira’ factor exists in its western region which occupies the whole of the Malay Peninsula’s land mass at the southern tip of the Euroasian continent, which is being flanked by the Straits of Melaka in the west, the Straits of Singapore in the south, and the South China Sea (SCS) in the east.
The country’s ‘nusantara’ factor lies in Malaysia’s eastern region of Sabah and Sarawak which occupies 26 per cent of Borneo, the biggest island in Asia which also ranks third biggest in the world.
Together with Indonesia’s Kalimantan and the Kingdom of Brunei; Malaysia’s eastern region is surrounded by the Makassar Straits and the Celebes Sea in the east, the SCS in the west, the Sulu Sea in the north, and the Java Sea in the south.
This region and its two neighbours in Borneo become the geographical fulcrum or the heart of the Malay Archipelago, with Indonesia as the lead state for controlling 73 per cent of the island’s land mass.
Hence, Malaysia’s ‘jazira’ factor is related to the ‘land bridge’ of its western region which has a great potential of linking Singapore and even Indonesia’s Sumatera; to Euroasia and beyond.
This factor also denotes Malaysia’s significance in the aspects of geostrategic, geoeconomic, and geopolitics of Southeast Asia, which have attracted foreign powers to this region during colonial period, in the Vietnam War and Cold War eras; as well as in the present times.
During the era of the Melaka Sultanate, this factor motivated the Portugese to invade the kingdom and took control of its port which linked traders from West Asia and South Asia, with their counterparts from the Nusantara and East Asia.
During the Vietnam War, this factor induced big powers attempting to unilaterally declare the Straits of Melaka as an international waters which was crucial to the mobility of their armada.
In 1980s, this factor encouraged several policy analysts to suggest that the US security policy in Southeast Asia should give special attention to the region’s maritime strategic strength, particularly in the Straits of Melaka and SCS.
In late 1990s, this factor led numerous US think-tanks to ascertain the strategic importance of Southeast Asian maritime zones, especially the Straits of Melaka and SCS, to the proposed Project for the New American Century which concentrated on the Asia-Pacific and the Southeast Asian Nusantara.
In the post 9/11 era, this factor made US once again implicitly trying to gain control of the Straits of Melaka to combat perceived threats from maritime terrorism in this waterway.
Trade wise, this factor had led several state actors attempting to secure the straits for fear of blockades by certain elements in this busiest and most critical waterway in the world, to disrupt petroleum transportation from West Asia to East Asia.
Similarly, Malaysia’s ‘nusantara’ factor motivated the spread of communism into Sabah and Sarawak in the Cold War era, which consequently led to the formation of Malaysia in 1963.
In the post 9/11 era, the US seemed to recognise the importance of Malaysia’s and Indonesia’s ‘nusantara’ factor, to their campaign against Muslim terrorists in Southeast Asia, by stationing its military in Davao, southern Philippines, which is separated from Borneo by the Sulu Sea.
The above narratives show that Malaysia’s foreign policy focus and behaviour since independence until today, had actually been defined by the centrality of the country’s geographical location in its two separate administrative regions of Southeast Asia.
Both of these factors became the thrust to the formulation of Malaysia’s foreign policy based on the principle of neutrality, and influenced the foreign relations’ behaviour of Malaysia, particularly towards big powers, since merdeka until today.
They had also nurtured and produced several initiatives and concepts being designed to sustain Malaysia’s sovereignty, security, and prosperity throughout the years, and also gave emergence to the neutralisation of Southeast Asian countries from big powers’ interference into their domestic affairs.
Some of the examples involving initial initiatives by Malaysian leaders, are the formation of Asean in 1967, the declaration of ZOPFAN in Southeast Asia in 1971, the institutionalisation of Asean+3 cooperation in 1999; and the Singapore Kunming Rail Link (SKRL) covering a distance of 6,617.5 kilometres, involving Cambodia, China, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam; with Malaysia as the project’s Permanent Chairman since 2007.
Malaysia’s foreign policy-makers, therefore, should wisely and seriously consider adopting the Jazira-Nusantara Concept as the thrust to country’s foreign policy behaviour, to complement and supplement the concept of Malaysia as “a maritime nation with continental roots” for defence and security, introduced in the country’s first-ever Defence White Paper last December.
The writer is an analyst of strategic and security issues, and was a member of parliament for Parit Sulong, Johor, 1990-2003
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the New Straits Times