Brunei Darussalam: A Period of Consolidation in Foreign Bilateral Relations


AVM Horton

In the absence of any major international conferences in recent weeks, the public focus in foreign relations has shifted to the bilateral sphere. Negara Brunei Darussalam (NBD) has continued to extend its diplomatic outreach so as to enhance its existing relations with core countries such as China.

Important multilateral developments have not been entirely lacking. For example, in late April during a ceremony in Manila NBD became the sixty-fifth member of the Asian Development Bank (PB 3.5.06:1-2). A little earlier, on 19-20 April, HRH the Perdana Wazir (Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade) attended an ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Retreat in Bali (PB 26.4.06:3). And on 2 May Senator Richard Lugar (Indiana) introduced legislation making provision for the appointment of a US Ambassador to ASEAN to boost ties with this rapidly growing region (BBO 4.5.06).

On the narrower stage, NBD opened diplomatic relations with Iceland (27 April) and Estonia (1 May). Since independence in 1984 the 'Abode of Peace' has established links with around 150 nations and international organisations. This does not mean that NBD has envoys permanently stationed in all of these places; nor, conversely, that all of its friends have embassies or high commissions in Bandar Seri Begawan.

In mid-April HM Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah paid his first State Visits to Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (whose ambassadors to the sultanate are based in Jakarta), with the aim of reinforcing the current 'warm and friendly relations' with those countries (BBSO 16.4.06). The three states undoubtedly have much in common: comparatively small populations, vast wealth, hydrocarbons, Islam, and monarchy, to name a few. That said, the level of trade between NBD and Qatar is minimal; according to Pelita Brunei (PB 19.4.06:5) the sultanate's exports to its West Asian counterpart totalled precisely zero in 2001, but hit NBD$200,000 in 2003, whilst imports from Qatar rocketed to NBD$104,000 in 1999 before slumping to NBD$2,538 in 2004. The shipment of halal food from NBD is one possible future avenue that might be explored, the official government newspaper suggests. NBD-UAE trade is rather more extensive, exports from NBD exceeding B$2.3m in 2005, whilst imports stood at just above NBD$1.0 million, both figures being substantially below the peak levels (PB 19.4.06:16).

It is undeniable that there is plenty of scope for development; but little of substance appears to have emerged from the encounter in Doha (15-16 April), certainly from a short-term perspective. Vague platitudes were expressed: HM the Sultan and HH Sheikh Hamad, Emir of Qatar, 'encouraged the public and private sectors of both countries to explore opportunities, particularly in the areas of investment and oil and gas activities'. His Majesty invited the Emirates to open up a mission in Bandar Seri Begawan and expressed his desire to foster relations in the fields of trade, economy, culture, communication, education, health, tourism, and sports; no information is given as to how this strategy is going to be achieved. The two leaders also welcomed discussions to be held in the near future on the 'Avoidance of Double Taxation Agreement' and the 'Bilateral Investment Treaty'. The most 'concrete' development appears to have been the signing of an MOU on the establishment of bilateral consultations between the respective foreign ministries (BBO 18.4.06, emphases added).

His Majesty moved on to Abu Dhabi on Easter Sunday (16 April) for a three-day programme in the UAE (BBO 18.4.06; BBO 20.4.06; PB 26.4.06:8-9). As in Qatar, little of tangible significance seems to have ensued. The itinerary hints at matters which might have been of concern to Sir Hassanal. His Majesty scrutinised the Dubai Police Academy, which trains local and foreign students especially from Muslim countries. His Majesty also took a look at the Emirates Tower and was briefed on the large-scale projects being undertaken by Dubai in information technology, media, entertainment, health care, real estate, and construction. Perhaps some new ideas were absorbed which will be adopted in NBD in due course. Indeed, judging from a double-page feature on the sheikhdom in the London Sunday Times on 21 May ('Dubai's building frenzy lays foundation for global power'), there is much that NBD could learn from its dynamic West Asian counterpart.

Ties with China continued to be boosted, with high profile visits proceeding in both directions. Princess Masna, Ambassador-at-Large, was in Beijing and Nanjing in early April. Her Royal Highness held separate meetings with Fu Chengyu (President of the China National Offshore Oil Corporation), Wu Dawei (Deputy Foreign Minister), and State Councillor Tang Jiaxuan. Items on the agenda included energy cooperation between the two countries, the fifteenth anniversary of diplomatic relations, PRC-ASEAN relations (particularly ASEAN support for the PRC on the Taiwan issue), regional peace, and people-to-people exchanges. On 6 April Her Royal Highness opened the China-Brunei Friendship Hall in Nanjing. This houses an exhibition of Bruneian culture at the tomb of Maharaja Karna, a non-Islamic ruler of P'o-ni (Brunei) who died whilst visiting China in 1408 (BBO 5.4.06 and 7.4.06; PB 5.4.06:2 and 12.4.06:3; Robert Nicholl, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, September 1989:179).

On 3 April HM the Sultan received in audience Mr Lu Bing, Governor of Guangxi, who was leading a huge business delegation to the sultanate. On 4 April no fewer than eleven memoranda of understanding were signed involving agricultural cooperation, tourism, and friendship associations (BBO 4.4.06; BBO 5.4.06; PB 12.4.06:12). In the same month NBD was also visited by Mr Yu Yizhong, Director-General of the Guangxi Education Department, who was looking for ways to foster cooperation between Universiti Brunei Darussalam and various universities in his own province, especially in economics, engineering, and sciences (BBO 5.4.06); by Mr Shan Jixing, Director-General of the Cultural Heritage of China (BBO 17.4.06); and by Mr Wang Zhen, Vice Chairman of the Chinese People's Institute of Foreign Affairs (BBO 22.4.06).

With regard to ASEAN countries, on 7 May an old friend, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamed, turned up in the national capital and was entertained to dinner by HM the Sultan at the Empire Hotel in Jerudong (PB 10.5.06:1). Secondly, on 22 April Mr Somsavat Lengsavad (Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Lao PDR) was in Bandar Seri Begawan. He took part with HRH Prince Mohamed Bolkiah in the inaugural meeting of the Joint Commission for bilateral cooperation between NBD and Laos. They signed an agreement for the avoidance of double taxation and the prevention of tax evasion (BBSO 23.4.06). Evidently these things can be achieved without the benefit of state visits. Thirdly, on 29 March HM the Sultan received in audience the Chief of the Indonesian People's Consultative Assembly, Bapak Agung Laksono (GBOW ON 30.3.06).

HRH the Crown Prince paid a five-day official visit to Singapore in early May, with some emphasis on his role (since 2005) as Deputy Inspector-General of the Royal Brunei Police Force (PB 10.5.06:1, 8-9, 16). A few weeks earlier (mid-late March) His Royal Highness and HRH the Crown Princess made a five-day official visit to Vietnam and Laos (PB 29.3.06:4-5, 12-13). A considerable donation was made by HRH Pengiran Anak Isteri Sarah to the Vietnam Association for Agent Orange Victims, which planned to use the money to provide sufferers with housing, medical treatment and business loans (BBSO 9.4.06). This generosity is worth highlighting here because Muslims get criticised from time to time for concentrating their charity on co-religionists and neglecting the remaining eighty per cent of humanity. To round off this section, it might be mentioned that on 11 May Royal Brunei Airlines launched a thrice-weekly service to Ho Chi Minh City (BBO 12.5.06).

A flurry of naval activity has occurred, most notably on 9 May when HRH Prince Mohamed Bolkiah and several officials were spirited to the USS Abraham Lincoln, a nuclear aircraft carrier cruising 'in an undisclosed location off the coast of Borneo'. 'What you have seen today is the best example of the US Navy', Rear Admiral John Goodwin asserted. 'We are very proud of our friendship with Brunei and we hope to come back and visit some day soon' (BBO 12.5.06). Secondly, the Royal Brunei Navy and the Singapore Navy commenced a five day exercise in NBD waters codenamed 'Pelican' on 4 April, the latest in an annual series stretching back to 1979. The objective is to foster a good working relationship between the two organisations through the practice of common procedures and planning (BBO 5.4.06). Thirdly, on 15 April the Royal Brunei Navy welcomed the arrival of a New Zealand frigate, HMNZS Te Mana, which was in the sultanate to enhance the working cooperation between the two Navies and establish a closer relationship between the two nations (BBSO 16.4.06).

Another notable visitor to the sultanate, in mid-May, was Alderman David Brewer, Lord Mayor of City of London, who expressed particular interest in Islamic banking and finance (BBO 16.5.06). This year marks the centenary of the establishment of the British Residency in the sultanate and is being promoted generally as the culmination of 'one hundred years of NBD-UK friendship'. In fact, ties between the two countries long pre-date 1906: a Brunei-UK Treaty of Friendship was signed as early as 27 May 1847, for example. Even before that, in August 1774 John Jesse arrived in 'Borneo Proper' (Brunei) and found the people 'unanimous in their inclination to cultivate the friendship and alliance of the Honourable [English East India] Company' (Jesse 1775, in A Dalrymple, Ed., Oriental Repertory, Volume 2, Number 1, 1791-7, page 1). The expansion of NBD's diplomatic network since 1984 notwithstanding, the United Kingdom remains one of the sultanate's most reliable allies to this day.

*This article was compiled from reports in the Borneo Bulletin Online (BBO), the Government of Brunei Darussalam Official Website, Online News (GROW ON); Pelita Brunei (PB); Borneo Bulletin Sunday (online) (BBSO) with reference to other sources as cited.

WATCHPOINT: Was anything learnt in Dubai which will be implemented in Negara Brunei Darussalam in due course?


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