The year 2013 will see Brunei Darussalam take over as chair of the ASEAN. It does so at a time when the 10-nation grouping is facing serious challenges. The role also presents the Sultanate with an opportunity to showcase its talents in the diplomatic sphere before a larger, global audience. A number of foreign analysts and local and international leaders have expressed their confidence that the country will be able to rise to the occasion, demonstrating its ability to bring about consensus and harmony to those around it.
SEA OF TROUBLES: One of the most challenging issues likely to be high on the ASEAN agenda in 2013 is the South China Sea. ASEAN members Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines have overlapping claims to parts of this 1.7m-sq-km expanse, while China and Taiwan both claim almost the entire sea. Populated by some 200 small islands, reefs and islets, the majority uninhabited, this maritime region is thought likely to contain significant deposits of oil and gas beneath the seabed, while it is also a major international waterway possessing extensive fishing reserves.
From 2011-12 tensions rose over rival claims to the sea. To resolve the dispute, China has long advocated negotiations between individual claimants, while some have sought a joint position with which to negotiate with the Chinese. The multiple discussions at play have added to the problem, as the creation of a mechanism by which to resolve the issue has added to the tension.
Brunei Darussalam’s claim arises as the Sultanate’s exclusive economic zone extends some 200 nautical miles from its coast, bringing the Louisa Reef into its jurisdiction. This reef forms part of the southern limit of the Spratly Islands, where China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan all have claims and, in contrast to Brunei Darussalam, also now have bases.
TACKLING DISAGREEMENT: Thus, the country will be attempting to resolve a dispute in which it is a claimant. This will require skilful diplomatic finesse, although the country will be able to draw on some major advantages in addressing this issue. Most important will be its good relations with all parties. Since Chinese President Hu Jintao’s state visit to Brunei Darussalam, back in 2005, a string of cooperation agreements have been signed. Chinese investment in the Sultanate has also increased, particularly in oil and gas. The Chinese National Offshore Oil Corporation is now working with Petroleum Brunei on exploration, and Zhejiang Hengyi Group and Sinopec Engineering are developing an oil refinery and aromatic cracker plant in the Sultanate.
MAINTAINING RELATIONS: Meanwhile, the 2009 Exchange of Letters with Malaysia settled the delimitation of maritime boundaries between Bandar Seri Begawan and Kuala Lumpur. Relations with Malaysia thus remain on good footing, as do those with the Philippines, with which Petroleum National Brunei signed a series of liquefied natural gas deals in December 2012. Travel visa restrictions with Taiwan were eased in December 2012, highlighting strong relations, while a friendly relationship with Vietnam was underscored during Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang’s November 2012 visit to Bandar Seri Begawan.
During the visit, the president and the sultan both called for a peaceful resolution of claims in the South China Sea and the implementation of a 2002 ASEANChina declaration on the conduct of parties there. They also called for all those with claims to work on establishing a functioning code of conduct for the maritime region. Bruneian foreign minister, Prince Mohamed Bolkiah, will likely be working to resolve the dispute.
Indeed, the Sultanate’s decision to not hold an informal ASEAN foreign ministers’ summit in January 2013, in favour of hosting a private senior officials meeting perhaps shows the country’s likely approach – enabling issues to be discussed in a less public and thus less pressured environment. In 2013 the long smouldering Thailand-Cambodia dispute over the Temple of Preah Vihear may also require attention when the International Court of Justice issues a new ruling, but many have confidence that Brunei Darussalam’s quiet and diplomatic approach may be just what ASEAN now needs.
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