Brunei takes ASEAN helm

Brunei takes ASEAN helm

In a few days, tiny Brunei takes over from Cambodia as chair of the regional organization ASEAN. Cambodia’s leadership was controversial, and several members accused it of yielding to Chinese influence on the South China Sea dispute. Chayut Setboonsarng considers what to expect:

As chairman, Brunei’s mandate will be to set the agenda and issue the chairman’s statements at ministerial meetings and leaders’ summits. This is a powerful tool for a country with a population of 400,000.

Observers have dismissed Brunei as a diplomatic featherweight. However, it has considerably high stakes in Asean’s success. Unlike Cambodia, Brunei is a disputant in the South China Sea. This compounds the issue and suggests that Brunei may take a stronger line against China’s claims.

How well it can persuade other Asean countries will hinge on the diplomatic prowess of its statesmen. Brunei’s Foreign Minister, Prince Mohamed Bolkiah, has famously advocated "defence diplomacy"–a doctrine that focuses on continuous dialogue and personal relationships. This may give some indication of how the Sultanate will use its status as Asean chair to approach the dispute.

Writing in the Asia Times, Richard Javad Heydarian notes that Beijing has some important leverage over Brunei:

Like Cambodia, Brunei has considerable economic ties to China. While Beijing has leveraged multi-billion dollar concessional loans, investments, and grants to woo comparatively poor Cambodia, it has also become increasingly involved in Brunei’s crucial oil and gas sector. Brunei is heavily dependent on its soon-to-be-depleted hydrocarbon resources, which currently account for around 60% of gross domestic product (GDP) and 90% of total export earnings….

In the absence of strong democratic institutions, Brunei’s ruling royal family depends heavily on hydrocarbon earnings to prop up its security apparatus and appease the population through generous welfare and subsidy schemes. China is thus not only a major customer and source of advanced offshore-drilling technology, but also a means as Brunei’s second-largest market for Brunei to diversify its highly hydrocarbon-dependent economy.