A critical year: Taking centre stage amidst ongoing tensions over the South China Sea

 

Brunei Darussalam, with a population of just 425,000, has taken the chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in what is likely to be a critical year for the 45-year-old organisation.

PRIORITIES: Amid simmering tension in the disputed South China Sea and increasing interest in the region from the US and China, the 10-member grouping found itself tested as never before in 2012. Moving ahead in 2013, ASEAN’s major powers will be looking to Brunei Darussalam’s coterie of diplomats to make at least some progress on the maritime dispute, to calm the more bellicose rhetoric, and to rebuild confidence and trust. The Sultanate will be aiming to create a more peaceful and secure environment in which the ongoing maritime issues can be resolved – possibly bilaterally. The group’s members will also be counting on Brunei Darussalam to set the pace to ensure that ASEAN countries meet previously agreed upon targets regarding the creation of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) that is due to take effect in just two years’ time. On top of that, the group is contending with an array of other issues including Myanmar taking the organisation’s chair in 2014 to the world’s continuing economic problems.

STRENGTHS: Brunei Darussalam may be small, but it has developed a reputation as an honest broker in regional political circles and most analysts are confident that the Sultanate, with what former ASEAN Secretary-General Rodolfo Severino, now head of the ASEAN Studies Centre at the Institute of South-east Asian Studies in Singapore, describes as an “extraordinarily competent” diplomatic service, has the skills to navigate its way through what is likely to be a challenging year. “We can look forward to a drama-free year coming from Brunei Darussalam as ASEAN chair,” said Edmund Sim, a Singapore-based international trade lawyer who has served as an adviser to the ASEAN and keeps a blog on the group. “This may be bad for headline writers, but it will be good for ASEAN institutions. Brunei Darussalam has a small, well-run and professional bureaucratic corps supported by the Sultan’s resources and long experience in the region.”

Brunei Darussalam will also set the stage for Myanmar, ASEAN’s newest member, which will hold the chair of the organisation in 2014 in what will be an historic moment for the country.

BACKGROUND: The Sultanate, an absolute monarchy with one of the world’s highest per capita incomes, joined ASEAN in 1984, the year it gained independence from Britain. It was the first new member to join the group since it was founded in 1967. HM Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah, who is the Prime Minister, Minister of Defence and Minister of Finance, has made ASEAN a cornerstone of his foreign policy, and has worked hard to integrate the country into many other international fora including the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), which it hosted in 2000.

Indeed, some of what analysts refer to as Brunei Darussalam’s “quiet diplomacy” is on show already. The Sultanate dispensed with the customary Foreign Ministers Meeting that is usually held in January – an event that could have served to expose once again differences among member states over the South China Sea – and opted instead for closed-door discussions among senior officials. The move also means ASEAN leaders have more time to prepare for the slew of informal meetings and summits that are scheduled for later in the year.

DIALOGUE STRUCTURE: ASEAN typically holds around 400 meetings in a year. As chair, Brunei Darussalam will host many of the major events, including the 22nd and 23rd ASEAN Summits, which will be held in April and October 2013, respectively. In addition, the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting is slated for June 25-26, 2013 and will be followed by the ASEAN Regional Forum to be held on June 27, 2013. The ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting (ADMM) takes place a couple of months later in the Bruneian capital Bandar Seri Begawan, followed by the ADMM Plus, which also involves several other countries including Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Russia and the US.

The East Asia Summit, as well as the first-ever USASEAN Summit, will be watched closely, not only as a gauge of big power attitudes towards ASEAN, but as a measure of Brunei Darussalam’s diplomatic skill in keeping talks on track. Regional think tanks note that Brunei Darussalam’s diplomats have started doing the rounds of regional capitals already, seeking to explain their position and priorities.

Its theme for the year, “Our People, Our Future Together”, suggests a focus on community engagement among ASEAN’s 600m-plus population, as well as recognition of the role played by the small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that are the backbone of economies that are expanding, collectively, at about 5% a year. Many of the businesses in the Sultanate are in fact SMEs. “SPIRIT OF ASEAN”: As one of ASEAN’s most committed supporters, analysts stress that the Sultanate is in a strong position to boost other members’ confidence in the benefits of group membership. Its officials have also stressed their interest in strengthening what ASEAN calls its “socio-cultural pillar”, which includes issues such as disaster preparedness planning, humanitarian assistance, environmental issues and food and energy security.

“They are trying to instil this ‘spirit of ASEAN’ among the different countries,” said Natalie Shobana Ambrose, an analyst at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies in Kuala Lumpur. “I think Brunei Darussalam will try to bring all that together.”

PRESSING ISSUES: Still, progress on the issue of the South China Sea is likely to prove the measure by which Brunei Darussalam’s success as chairman is assessed. Taking up his five-year post at the start of 2013, the new ASEAN secretary-general, Le Luong Minh, a former Vietnamese diplomat, stressed the need for progress in the South China Sea dispute. “ASEAN should speed up efforts towards an early start of negotiations with China with a view to achieving an early conclusion of a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea,” he said.

With the Philippines taking legal action against China under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and China preferring a bilateral solution rather than engaging with ASEAN as a group, the stakes are high. “Crunch time is here, as ASEAN is feeling the heat,” wrote regional analyst Kavi Chongkittavorn in The Nation, a Thai newspaper, on January 21, 2013.

“Whether Brunei Darussalam can clean up venomous residues over the existing maritime conflict and make progress during its chair will depend on how practical and realistic the chair is,” he added.

GEOPOLITICALLY IMPORTANT: Brunei Darussalam, adjacent to the Malaysian state of Sarawak on the island of Borneo, is one of six claimants to either all or part of the South China Sea. The others claimants include the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia – all fellow members of ASEAN – as well as Taiwan and China. The latter’s increasingly assertive posturing over the South China Sea – whether through the formalisation of settlements on its rocky outcrops and islands or through new passports that include the disputed area as part of China – has rattled many in the region, as well as the US.

The Philippines and Vietnam will be hoping that the Sultanate will have the confidence and finesse to bring all sides together.

“One thing that may work in Brunei Darussalam’s favour is that China’s leadership transition is basically completed, which should give the [Chinese] government a bit more latitude against domestic critics who claim it is not protecting China’s sovereignty,” notes Murray Hiebert, the deputy director of the Sumitro Chair for South-east Asia Studies at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC. “Another is that China may want to try to soften some of the international criticism against its perceived aggressive posture in the South China Sea,” Hiebert added. CONFLICT OF INTEREST?: Brunei Darussalam’s own claim in the area is modest, according to Termsak Chalermpalanupap of the Institute of South-east Asian Studies in Singapore, involving only Louisa Reef and Rifleman Bank, both of which are under water most of the time and are outside the hotly contested Spratlys. That may make it easier for the country to bring China and ASEAN together and avoid the issues that affected 2012’s meetings in Cambodia. One of ASEAN’s poorest members, joining only in 1999, it proved unable to manage the discord over the South China Sea. For the first time, the foreign ministers’ ended their annual meeting without a final communiqué. “I have no doubt that the ASEAN members will not fail this time,” said Severino. “That is mainly because of the known competence of Brunei Darussalam’s diplomats,” he added.

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The Report: Brunei Darussalam 2013

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