Brunei Darussalam is the smallest country in Southeast Asia with a population of only 400,000 people and on the other hand the second wealthiest country in ASEAN. In the beginning of 2013 Brunei was taking over the chairmanship of ASEAN from Cambodia. They got the chairmanship for the second time after 2001.
According to Article 31 of the ASEAN Charter, the Chairmanship of ASEAN shall rotate annually, based on the alphabetical order of the English names of Member States. A Member State assuming the Chairmanship shall chair the ASEAN Summit and related summits, the ASEAN Coordinating Council, the three ASEAN Community Councils, relevant ASEAN Sectoral Ministerial Bodies and senior officials, and the Committee of Permanent Representatives. 1
Which problems did they face and how did they perform as Chairmanship country and how can Brunei further contribute to ASEAN?
Brunei were faced a number of problems. Brunei had to help managing tensions regarding the strategic South China Sea following last year’s spite after then-chair Cambodia, a major recipient of assistance from Beijing, twice sought to limit discussion of China’s assertive actions in the disputed sea. This provoked protests from several Southeast Asian countries.
Second, with the collective goal of achieving an ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) by the end of 2015, Brunei needed to observe and may trigger them on implementing the agreed-upon economic road map.
A third task involved keeping China and the United States engaged in the East AsiaSummit(EAS). Many Southeast Asians wonder what impact the departure of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific Kurt Campbell would have on the U.S. rebalance to Asia and U.S. relations with ASEAN.
“Our People, Our Future Together”
Brunei has chosen as the theme for its chairmanship “Our people, our future together.” The Prime Minister wanted to organize some 400 meetings throughout last. These would include two ASEAN leaders’ summits in April and October, the ASEAN Regional Forum attended by the foreign ministers of 27 Asia Pacific countries in June, and the 18-member East Asia Summit, which brings together ASEAN and its most important partners, including the United States, in October.
The statement of Bruneian officials was to put priorities on the youth of ASEAN in order to promote a region-wide sense of belonging. Other themes were discussing environmental issues like climate change and natural disasters, tackling food and energy security, and addressing poverty eradication, sustainable development, and closing the income gap within ASEAN. 2
Brunei’s scorecard – One of the most important developments regarding the South China Sea disputes last year was China and ASEAN’s agreement to actively work toward a binding Code of Conduct. Three months after ASEAN leaders initiated discussions on ways to handle the South China Sea territorial disputes at a meeting in Brunei in April, China agreed to start consultations with ASEAN on a binding Code of Conduct at last year’s ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). The joint communiqué issued by Chinese and Southeast Asian foreign ministers in July emphasized the need to peacefully resolve competing claims in the South China Sea, and was in blatant contrast to the diplomatic impasse in Phnom Penh last year.
Brunei was able to play a constructive role by maintaining a neutral position, despite being one of the claimants in the disputes. Sultan Bolkiah visited both Manila and Beijing in April, in an effort to help build confidence between ASEAN and Chinese leaders throughout his country’s chairmanship. More importantly, his able management of meetings’ agendas and stakeholders’ concerns helped ensure the integrity of ASEAN-hosted meetings as venues for a constructive dialogue in the Asia Pacific, while affirming Brunei’s image as a credible player within ASEAN and the region.
Brunei also pushed the other ASEAN members to expedite the AEC blueprint, as Southeast Asia becomes more important to various regional trade integration efforts. At the East Asia Summit in November, the Sultan stated that only 79.7 percent of the AEC blueprint has been completed. He indicated to the other ASEAN leaders to further intensify the efforts in the remaining areas in order to meet the goal by the end of 2015. 3
How can Brunei contribute further to ASEAN?
Brunei has opportunities to play a key role in ASEAN even though it belongs to the smallest countries within ASEAN but its potentials are there. Since Brunei is a member of the common wealth, they could try to use their relation with other members. Due to the fact that on every continent is at least on member of the common wealth means Brunei has a good connection to the world and has close relations to every continent. Brunei could be the negotiator between ASEAN and common wealth countries to enhance or further maintain relations to other countries. 4
Another of Brunei’s potentials is the possibility to become world R&D hub. This is at least the opinion of a foreign firm who will invest in a three-year project with Brunei in bio-food and pharmaceutical. Important arguments, for the external company, are the literacy rate is 100 per cent and generally people are bilingual and have greater excess to free education but more importantly for them is the view on the government which has “a vision to be a major player in the ASEAN region”. Moreover, the government of Brunei has liberal trade policies, low company tax and excellent incentives and not overly regulated. Additionally, the government’s scholarship program for its citizens to get the best education abroad from top universities in the world is another important point for foreign investors. 5
Brunei belongs to the richest countries within ASEAN and has therefore the opportunity to invest money in their own country to further enhance their development. Since they are largely dependent on their oil and gas resource I already explained that Brunei needs to diversify their economy and enlarge other sectors. Brunei could, for example, invest in their financial sector and can also try to occupy new jobs by immigrants from ASEAN countries. In this case Brunei could be the country to bring forward the plan of easier labor migration within ASEAN member states.
“ASEAN unified after Brunei’s positive term at helm”
All in all Brunei performed, for some critics surprisingly, good as the chairmanship country in ASEAN in 2013. Even though Brunei was facing quite a number of obstacles they handled it in a very professional way and tried to be interactive between countries which you could see through the large number of meetings the Sultan scheduled. Especially the South Chinese Sea conflict was seen and probably was one of the major points Brunei’s Prime Minister had to work on. More surprising is then the outcome they agreed on to actively work toward a binding Code of Conduct. Furthermore, Mister Bolkiah was also focusing on the collective goal of AEC by the end of 2015. After the last East Asia Summit, when all ASEAN members noticed that only 79.7 percent of the AEC blueprint has been completed, he really pushed all member leaders to fulfill the implementation in order to achieve the cooperative objective. Finally, Brunei can play a key role within ASEAN by the usage of its potentials which are mentioned above such as the educational filed with their scholarships and also the opportunities to invest in their own economy by creating a strong financial sector which creates new jobs. All this points will lead Brunei into a great position in ASEAN.
- http://www.asean.org/asean/asean-chair ↩
- http://csis.org/publication/brunei-takes-challenges-chairing-asean-2013 ↩
- http://cogitasia.com/bruneis-asean-chairmanship-scorecard/ ↩
- http://thecommonwealth.org/member-countries ↩
- http://www.bt.com.bn/business-national/2013/12/23/weighing-out-brunei%E2%80%99s-potential-become-world-class-r-d-hub ↩