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14 September 2018, Gateway House

Brunei, ASEAN’s quiet, cautious player

India and Brunei have a 34-year-old diplomatic relationship; but as yet no Indian president or prime minister has paid the country a bilateral visit to strengthen these ties. The strategically-located nation is rich in its history, with a unique political system. Its foreign policy approach is non-controversial, yet noticeably pragmatic.

Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies Programme

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This is the first in a series about the ASEAN nations.

The uniqueness, relative prosperity and peace of Negara Brunei Darussalam –   Brunei, for short – stems from its geographical location, history and political system. Population-wise, it is the smallest member-state of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).[1] In terms of nominal GDP per capita, it has the second highest rank in the grouping, after Singapore, due to its vast hydrocarbon assets.

The island of Borneo hosts three nations: Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. Only the whole of Brunei is located on this island, but the country is separated into two parts by Malaysia’s Sarawak district of Limbang. With a 161 km-long coastline on the South China Sea, Brunei has a strategically important location in Southeast Asia.

Its history is traced to the 6th century when Brunei was a Hindu-Buddhist kingdom, enjoying close links to the great Srivijaya and Majapahit maritime empires of South East Asia and China. The 14th century brought the nation’s transformation into an Islamic sultanate. Brunei controlled the coastal areas of Borneo, but lost them to the expanding British and Dutch presence in the region. Eventually, in 1888, the ruling Sultan accepted being a British protectorate[2], with no change to the monarchical system. Brunei attained independence on 1 January 1984. It is now one of the world’s oldest continuing monarchies, one in which the sultan wields most of the executive authority. Brunei joined ASEAN immediately as the sixth member-state.

Three guiding principles

The concept of Malayu Islam Beraja (MIB) guides the nation, with its stress on three integral components: Malay culture, Islamic religion and a governance system centred on an executive monarchy.

Hassanal Boekiah, 72, Sultan of Brunei, has been on the throne since October 1967. Trained at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, U.K., he is regarded a modern and enlightened ruler, generally popular with his people. The safe continuation of the monarchy and a smooth succession plan seem to be the central considerations behind the government’s policy. The introduction of the Sharia, applicable to Muslim citizens, sits well with the Common Law, also embedded in the system. Although an Islamic kingdom, minorities – Christians and Buddhists totalling 23% of the population – feel safe and secure.

In crafting their approach to external relations, the leaders and officials of Brunei are deeply conscious of the tiny size of their country and its vulnerability in an unstable region. Their response encapsulates three aspects:

First, they project their foreign policy in non-controversial terms: maintenance of friendly relations with all nations; mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity; non-interference in others’ internal affairs; and maintenance and promotion of peace, security and stability.

Second, they secure close alignment with ASEAN which provides a larger platform and security insurance. Brunei enjoys the closest relations with Singapore, and it maintains cordial and cooperative ties with Malaysia and Indonesia.[3]  When Mahathir Mohamad returned to power in Malaysia, the Sultan of Brunei was among his earliest visitors. About 90% of Brunei’s GDP comes from oil and gas, and the country is import-dependent; ASEAN is a source for many imports, especially food.

Third, the nation maintains special relations with the U.K. which still plays a significant security role through the stationing of a 2,000-strong British Gurkha Reserve Unit since 1962. Besides, British corporates help the country run its petroleum industry.

This is balanced through a cooperative relationship with China, which has been enlarging its economic –  particularly investment – footprint rapidly. Chinese investment is estimated to be $4.1 billion, and the areas covered are infrastructure construction, agriculture and fisheries. As its investments grow, Chinese influence is on the rise. A Chinese-Brunei joint venture operates the container terminal of Muara Port, Brunei’s only port. A senior Chinese diplomat had said last year, “Brunei is an important country along the 21st century Maritime Silk Road. We hope that bilateral cooperation in every field can be further deepened.”[4] As for the South China Sea, Brunei follows a cautious policy; it has been dubbed “a quiet claimant”.[5]

Relations with India

Brunei and India are linked by historical and cultural ties that date back to the 3rd century AD, a fact that only experts on the region know. India views Brunei as ‘the abode of peace’ that has become “an example of a tolerant society.”[6] Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Brunei in October 2013 – to participate in the India-ASEAN summit.  Vice President Hamid Ansari paid a rare bilateral visit in February 2016 to take the relationship to a higher level. The Sultan, visited India –  in 1992 and 2008, and again in 2012 and 2018, to be part of the commemorative India-ASEAN summits. So far, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has held three bilateral meetings with the Sultan of Brunei.

A bilateral visit from an Indian president or prime minister is overdue, will reciprocate the Sultan’s visits and strengthen the relationship, bringing benefit to both sides. Regular visits are essential to promote shared interests and mutual awareness. Economic relations have grown well, but their optimal potential is yet to be tapped. Brunei contributes to India’s energy security, exporting crude oil, ranging between 1.2 and 1.6 million metric tonnes annually. India is the third largest importer of Bruneian oil. However, the total import from Brunei is only a fraction of India’s global crude imports. During the vice president’s visit, discussions took place about the setting up of a fertiliser plant that could use Brunei’s hydrocarbon resources for producing fertilisers to meet India’s agricultural requirements, but this project has made no progress.

Bilateral trade peaked at $1 billion in 2014; it declined to $634 million in 2017, mainly because of the plunging international price of oil. This is likely to change in the future. But India needs to step up its exports to Brunei, especially through the private sector. Tata Motors and the Mahindra Group already have local distributors in Brunei. Many joint ventures, involving Indian investment, are active in IT, industrial chemicals and textiles, and need acceleration. Food and agricultural products could be one area, and IT is an opportunity – Brunei is the most digitally connected country in ASEAN.[7] Development of links among universities and think tanks should be expedited to bring the two polities closer.

The 11,000-strong Indian community, largely composed of professionals, comprising doctors, engineers and educators, has been contributing to the services sector of the nation’s economy.

Brunei extends valuable assistance to India’s space programme by serving as a host to the Telemetry Tracking and Telecommand Station of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). Both countries are committed to maintaining the freedom of navigation, safety of sea lanes and maritime security, with Indian naval ships often visiting Brunei. Defence ties and naval exercises are being stepped up. The participation of young representatives from Brunei in the first India-ASEAN Youth Summit last year[8] was a positive step.

India-Brunei bilateral relations have the potential  to emerge from their  modest moorings. Brunei is located deep within the Indo-Pacific region, where, as a non-controversial and pragmatic nation, it can be a valuable partner for India, in the geopolitical context.

Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Gateway House and a former ambassador to Myanmar, who writes regularly on Southeast Asian affairs.

This is the first in a series about the ASEAN nations.

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[1] Its population was estimated to be 421,000 in 2017. Its total area is 5,765 Its estimated GDP in nominal terms was $13 billion in 2018. Two-thirds of the GDP and about 95% of exports come from crude oil and natural gas.

[2]The Commonwealth, Brunei Darussalam: History, <>

[3]Trading Economics, Brunei Exports 2005-2018, <>

[4]China Daily, China-Brunei joint venture starts operating Brunei’s container terminal, 22 February 2017, <>

[5] VOA News, Closer China Ties Seen Pressuring Brunei on Sensitive Maritime Claims, 11 April 2018, <>

[6]Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, Address by Vice President at the University of Brunei, 3 February 2016, <>

[7]  We are social, Digital in Southeast Asia in 2017, 16 February 2017, <>

[8]Borneo Bulletin, Youth Summit in Bhopal strengthens Brunei-India links, 8 September 2017, <>