Brunei Darussalam: Bilateral and Multilateral Developments in Foreign Affairs


AVM Horton

Whilst attention has been diverted lately to the cabinet reshuffle and the prolonged oil bonanza, Negara Brunei Darussalam (NBD) has also been involved in a flurry of diplomatic activity, as foreshadowed in the June issue of Asian Analysis.

HRH Prince Mohamed Bolkiah (the Perdana Wazir or highest-ranking vizier) retains his grip on the foreign ministry portfolio, which he has held since independence in 1984 (and unofficially for some time before then as well). Probably ranking third in the government whilst the Seri Begawan Sultan was still alive (1984-6), he was second-in-command between 1986 and 2005, but now moves back to third place following HRH the Crown Prince's induction into the cabinet in May. It has been announced that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is to be renamed the 'Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade' on 1 August. The stated purpose of the change is to facilitate the annexation of the 'International Relations' and 'Trade Development' sections from the Ministry of Industry and Primary Resources (Borneo Bulletin online, 9.7.05). It could be speculated that this alteration is a sop to the perdana wazir in compensation for his recent slight diminution in status. His Royal Highness was also Deputy Sultan in June whilst His Majesty was overseas.

NBD has continued the expansion of its diplomatic outreach, which had to commence virtually from scratch at merdeka (national independence) in 1984. Hence on 17 March the 'Abode of Peace' became the 191st member of UNESCO, whose Director-General, Koichiro Matsuura, praised calak Brunei (NBD-style conflict-resolution through dialogue and compromise) as a possible model for the wider international community (BBO 18.3.05). Multilateral diplomacy has been accompanied by an expanding network of bilateral contacts. The latest example came on 13 July, when diplomatic relations were established between NBD and Venezuela (BBO 15.7.05). However, one problem faced by the sultanate is a shortage of persons with the requisite expertise to staff its diplomatic corps.

The 'pull of China' (Asian Analysis, April 2005) was further illustrated by the two-day State Visit of President Hu Jintao to Bandar Seri Begawan on 20-21 April. A series of agreements was signed relating to oil, health, visas, and telecommunications (BBO 21.4.05), although the subject matter appears to have been either (a) fairly inconsequential or (b) merely an extension of existing activities. For example, NBD is to continue to supply the People's Republic with ten thousand barrels of oil a day for a further twelve months until the end of 2005; but the contract has already been running (with extensions) for some years, so it represents nothing new. Exchange and friendship between the two countries are to be fostered via business, culture, and tourism (BBO 21.4.05). Indeed, a 'Brunei-China Friendship Association' was founded shortly before the Chinese President arrived in Bandar Seri Begawan, although apparently there is already in existence a separate 'China-Brunei Friendship Association'. This baffling arrangement suggests a certain lack of communication between the two sides. In a press release issued at the end of the visit both NBD and the PRC reaffirmed their existing commitment to reach a bilateral trade target of one thousand million US dollars by 2010 (Government of Brunei Darussalam Official Website, Online News 22.4.05).

His Majesty the Sultan has been active in the international arena. A four-day State Visit to Malaysia, his first to Kuala Lumpur for nearly eight years, took place at the end of April. 'Such cordial ties must be maintained and nurtured', His Majesty argued, 'to enable both countries to discuss bilateral matters and forge stronger friendship'. Around seventeen thousand Malaysians are currently working in NBD and contributing to its development (BBO 30.4.05).

Relations between Bandar Seri Begawan and Kuala Lumpur are well established, albeit somewhat prickly at times. In June, however, His Majesty broke entirely fresh ground when he became the first Brunei/NBD* monarch to pay an official visit to Russia (thereby building on a similar sojourn in Ukraine at this time last year). The trip appears to have been reasonably successful because President Putin accepted His Majesty's invitation to come to Bandar Seri Begawan in due course. Talks between the two leaders on 7 June focused on the potential for bilateral trade and investment; exchanges of a military, scientific and technological nature; and the necessary legal framework to underpin such co-operation (BBO 8.6.05). President Putin thanked His Majesty for supporting Russia in the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), where Moscow enjoys observer status. Both countries denounced international terrorism 'in all of its forms'. It would be appropriate to add here, therefore, that all NBD citizens living in the United Kingdom were reported to be safe following the London bombings of 7 July 2005 (Borneo Bulletin Sunday, online, 10.7.05). According to an expert from the International Crisis Group, there was 'no significant terror threat' in NBD itself and there were 'no indications' that the Jemaah Islamiyah would establish a cell in the country (BBO 5.5.05).

In the multilateral arena, His Majesty travelled to Indonesia in late April to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of the original Bandung Conference, which inspired the establishment of the Non-Aligned Movement (NBD becoming a member in September 1992). The leaders endorsed a new strategic alliance aimed at boosting trade and tackling poverty (BBO 26.4.2005). His Majesty also attended the second South Summit of the G77 and China held in Doha in June. During the gathering the leaders stressed the need to intensify cooperation, unity and solidarity among developing countries (GBOW ON 20.6.2005).

The range of NBD's international network is indicated by the stream of VIPs which has wended its way to the sultanate during the past few months, notably the prime ministers of Laos and Pakistan, respectively Mr Bounnhang Vorachith (March) and Mr Shaukat Aziz (May); the foreign ministers of the Philippines (March), Thailand (May), and Japan and South Africa (both in June); Dato' Sri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein, Minister of Education, Malaysia (March); senior military personnel from several ASEAN countries; a goodwill appearance by ships of the Thai Navy (March); special envoys from Brazil (June) and Gambia (March); and even Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, Secretary for the Holy See's Relations with States (June).

It was announced on 12 July that the Tsunami Relief Fund would be closed at the end of the month. A sum of NBD$3.2m had been raised since the beginning of the year and any further donations were welcomed before the deadline. Seventy per cent of the money has been earmarked for Aceh with the remaining thirty per cent to be split evenly between Sri Lanka and the Maldive Islands. It was hoped the resources would help rebuild basic infrastructure such as mosques, schools, and houses (BBO 13.7.05). It was not stated whether any of the cash is to be used for the reconstruction of non-Muslim religious buildings. Meanwhile, an earthquake measuring 4.8 on the Richter scale occurred on the border areas of Sabah, Sarawak and NBD on 30 June; it went largely unnoticed although some residents in Temburong felt the tremor (BBO 6.7.05).

*Note: 'Brunei' is used with reference to the pre-1983 period and 'NBD' for 1984 (post-independence) onwards.

WATCHPOINT: In the short term, expect further expansion of NBD's diplomatic network; in the longer term, it may be that HRH Prince Abdul Qawi will be groomed to take over from his father as Foreign Minister in due course.


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