Brunei: Stronger links

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The 17th ASEAN summit in Hanoi in October saw Brunei Darussalam taking steps to improve economic ties with several of its partners in the 10-member organisation, as well as with non-member states. The summit, the second held under Vietnam’s chairmanship, came at a crucial time for ASEAN as it seeks to build more internal economic integration while also strengthening its geostrategic role.

Compared with other ASEAN nations, Brunei Darussalam is relatively small, both in terms of size and population. As ASEAN is a key forum for articulation of the smaller nations’ views and interests, strengthening ties with the organisation has long been one of the Sultanate’s key foreign policy objectives. Indeed, the summit provided an opportunity for Brunei Darussalam to reinforce its ties with its neighbours while strengthening relations with other regional powers.

On October 28 His Majesty Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah met with Nguyen Tan Dung, the Vietnamese prime minister, who proposed that an investment protection agreement and memorandum of understanding (MoU) on fisheries between the two countries should be signed. His Majesty Bolkiah also proposed further cooperation in fisheries, trade, investment and agriculture, with the Vietnamese stating on the latter point that they were ready to export rice to Brunei Darussalam.

Agriculture was also top of the agenda in discussions between the Bruneian leader and the Philippines President Benigno Aquino III. According to the chief Filipino presidential spokesperson, a broad discussion on agricultural issues took place between the two leaders, with this likely to be the first step toward a bilateral agreement that would supply Filipino foodstuffs to the Sultanate.

The focus for these potential future imports was the southern Filipino island of Mindanao, which is part of the Brunei-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines East ASEAN Growth Area (BIMPEAGA). The potential for the island as a future hub for halal food production was raised by the Sultan, according to the Filipinos, with the proviso that this objective would likely be realised after a lasting peace settlement on the troubled island.

Brunei has had a strong commitment to the peace process on the island for some time, sending a contingent from the Royal Brunei Armed Forces as part of the peace monitoring effort. There has been a decades long conflict there between the Filipino government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front over autonomy and human rights.

Brunei also sent a representative from the Brunei Investment Authority to the upcoming public-private-partnership conference being held in Manila later in November. The conference aims to drum up more foreign investment for the Philippines.

In addition to relations with its immediate neighbours, Brunei has also been keen to strengthen ties with other important countries in the region. In this regard His Majesty also praised ASEAN’s relationship with Australia and New Zealand at the ASEAN summit and at the associated ASEAN-Australia summit, which was attended by newly elected Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard. He also highlighted the importance of ASEAN’s links with Russia at the ASEAN-Russian summit, which was held during the time of the meeting in Hanoi. Russian President Dimitry Medvedev attended this meeting, where the Sultan welcomed Russia’s inclusion in the East Asia Summit (EAS) and the ASEAN 10+8 defence ministers’ meeting.

The EAS, which met during the ASEAN summit, also saw the participation of the US for the first time, while the meeting of ASEAN+ 3 (Japan, South Korea and China) also took place. India was also present in Hanoi, pursuing its new “Look East” policy at the eighth ASEAN-India summit, an event which saw a further strengthening of trade links and which promises the establishment of a free trade agreement (FTA) after 2016.

Brunei Darussalam supports an inclusive series of agreements and dialogues between ASEAN and other regional players, seeing these as ways to strengthen both prosperity and political stability. The FTAs are expected to boost trade levels and the need to focus on comparative advantage will be more pressing than ever when they take full effect. The Sultanate’s decision to move toward more value-added industries is likely to be an increasingly necessary strategy if Brunei is to benefit from more open trade with mass manufacturing economies. Welcoming in all the neighbours may give the Sultanate a chance to show its unique qualities to an ever-wider world.

“We should further undertake comprehensive measures to ensure ASEAN centrality in an evolving regional architecture,” Vietnamese premier Nguyen said at the opening of the summit, addressing a key underlying concern of many member states. Vietnam had held the rotating chair of ASEAN this year, with this position handed over to Indonesia at the end of the summit.

The architecture the prime minister was talking about is not evolving in a vacuum, but within the context of growing interest in the region from outside, notably from China. Other powers, such as the US, India and Russia, all have interests and initiatives under way in South-east Asia. Moving forward, Brunei Darussalam looks set to continue on a path of increasing cooperation with states both within and outside of the ASEAN region.

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