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The foreign policy trajectory of Brunei, a small, oil-rich sultanate in Southeast Asia with a population of less than half a million, is rarely the subject of detailed commentary in international media outlets, with the headlines focused on developments within the royal family or changes its approach to sharia law. Yet the country’s holding of the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) this year will spotlight its approach to the world, including the way it manages its priorities, alignments and capabilities.

Despite its small size, Brunei at times plays an often-underappreciated role in regional and international issues. Economically, while Brunei has long faced difficulties in diversifying its hydrocarbon-dependent economy, it was also one of the original members of the P-4 agreement – along with Chile, New Zealand and Singapore – that paved the way for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (which has since been rebranded CPTPP or TPP-11). Security-wise, it is a claimant in the South China Sea disputes and a hub for several countries on issues such as counterterrorism and maritime security, including neighboring Singapore and former colonial power Britain.

As it has done for other Southeast Asian states in previous years, 2021 will spotlight Brunei’s foreign policy more so than usual with its holding of the ASEAN chairmanship, which rotates annually between the ten-member states in alphabetical order. To be sure, Brunei is no stranger to chairing ASEAN, having done so twice already in 2001 and 2013 since joining the organization following its independence in 1984, and its foreign engagement also includes other organizations such as the United Nations and the Organization of Islamic Conference. Nonetheless, the ASEAN chair will showcase Brunei’s influence on major regional and international issues, its management of key foreign relationships, and its capabilities to manage a full plate at home and abroad.  

First and most clearly, Brunei’s ASEAN chairmanship will shed light on its own foreign policy priorities. Brunei has already disclosed some programmatic actions in its “We Care, We Prepare, We Prosper” theme, including agreements on e-commerce, cyberspace and energy. But beyond this, the country’s diplomats have also candidly shed light as best they can some of the broader focus areas for Brunei as it drives some of these actions in 2021, including shaping ASEAN’s COVID-19 recovery, preparing the grouping for the Fourth Industrial Revolution and  strengthening the rules-based architecture for the benefit of all countries big and small as it manages broader 2021 geopolitical challenges such as great power competition and the South China Sea disputes.

Amid the multitude of meetings it will host, top of mind will be how Brunei manages its relationship with China, particularly since its ASEAN chair year also coincides with the 30th anniversary of China-Brunei relations.

Second, Brunei’s 2021 ASEAN chairmanship will also reveal much about how it manages its alignments. Amid the multitude of meetings it will host, top of mind will be how Brunei manages its relationship with China, particularly since its ASEAN chair year also coincides with the 30th anniversary of China-Brunei relations which Beijing will seek to leverage for its own interests. But its relationship with other Western countries which have long formed part of its foreign policy outlook will also be interesting to watch, be it the United States under new President Joe Biden or the United Kingdom which is looking to strengthen ties with ASEAN as a bloc post-Brexit.

Third, the chairmanship will also demonstrate Brunei’s capabilities to manage a full plate at home and abroad. As Brunei chairs the grouping through this year, being in the limelight will naturally draw more attention than is typically the case to key issues, be it its management of COVID-19 which has spared the country so far relative to some of its neighbors or diversifying its economy from one where oil and gas still accounts for over 70 percent of the country’s nominal GDP and almost all of its exports by one estimate. As we see this play out, we can expect Brunei to draw links between some of its key domestic and foreign policy priorities through existing and new policies, including Wawasan 2035 which seeks to transform it into a country which is highly-educated with a high-quality life and a dynamic and sustainable economy.

To be sure, Brunei will have much more to handle beyond just these foreign policy components during its ASEAN chairmanship year, including some potentially unexpected domestic and international developments as well that may factor into the country’s calculations. Furthermore, some of the more important questions for Brunei lie much further ahead beyond 2021, including its ability to balance ties with China and other external partners in the longer term as well as the shape of any future domestic succession away from Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah that might play out in the coming years.

Nonetheless, Brunei’s ASEAN chairmanship year will nonetheless spotlight its foreign policy much more so than is the case. How policymakers both utilize the spotlight that will be cast on Brunei’s activities at home and abroad and juggle the other opportunities and challenges the country faces during the year will be key to watch.

Follow Prashanth Parameswaran, Asia Program Global Fellow, on Twitter @TheAsianist.

The views expressed are the author's alone, and do not represent the views of the U.S. Government or the Wilson Center. Copyright 2020, Asia Program. All rights reserved.

About the Author

Prashanth Parameswaran

Prashanth Parameswaran

Global Fellow;
Director, Bower Group Asia and Senior Columnist, The Diplomat
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