Brunei and the 2021 ASEAN Chairmanship

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After Vietnam, Brunei Darussalam will be the second country to lead the Association of South-East Asian Nations after the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.

It is not the first time that Brunei holds the Chairmanship of the ASEAN, but the fifth: initially in 1989, then 1995, 2001, 2013, and lastly 2021, following the alphabetical order rotation system of the Member States. However, it is the first time that the handover occurs in such a delicate moment. A moment when global geopolitical tensions are more heated than ever, and the health crisis adds more uncertainty for the future. The way Brunei will respond to these challenges during this year will be decisive for ASEAN’s foreign policy and internal cohesion.

Brunei, in Malay “The Abode of peace” (Nagara Brunei Darussalam), is an absolute monarchy under the Sultan located on the island of Borneo. It borders the Malaysian state of Sarawak for most of its part, except the coastline that faces the South China Sea. The Sultanate, whose economy is strongly dependent on oil, is positioned in the middle of a burning square of the global geopolitics. On one side, the ASEAN countries: strategic partners, two of which (the Philippines and Vietnam) share Brunei’s same territorial disputes with China on the South China Sea. On another side, China: the opponent in the South China Sea, but also Brunei’s major trade partner and foreign investor in oil refineries and local infrastructures. On yet another side, the U.S. and President Joe Biden: an essential ally but also one of the harsher critics regarding Sultan’s Hassanal Bolkiah law against the LGBTQ community and adulterers. On the last side, the U.K.: a precious partner that seeks to strengthen relations with the ASEAN block after Brexit, but ex-colonial power of Brunei at the same time. Another obstacle for the cooperation between the two is the heavy reliance of Brunei’s economy on oil, which makes up the noses of those who would prefer a greener partners.

Considering its very delicate position in this context, Brunei will have to act judiciously and carefully, to avoid getting caught up in the dense mesh of the geopolitical net. Likewise, it will have to make the best use of its Chairmanship to foster ASEAN’s agenda. It is important to mention that Brunei was one of the four countries to sign the P-4 Agreement, the trade agreement that paved the way for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and ended up involving 12 countries representing 40% of the global economy. Brunei’s economic leverage and commitment make it a major hub for the other Member States, which are looking forward to finding out what fields will be covered by Brunei’s action plan for the 2021 Chairmanship. 

What is known so far is the theme representing this year’s Chairmanship: “We care, We Prepare, We Prosper”. According to the Sultan, it represents ASEAN’s collective commitment to care for its people and prepare for future challenges, to ensure sustainable development for the entire ASEAN community. Brunei’s priorities should be working to reach the ASEAN Community Vision 2025 and reinforcing ASEAN’s institutions; implementing the ASEAN Comprehensive Recovery Framework to address the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic; strengthening resilience to future emergencies in the entire region by using ASEAN-led mechanisms including the ASEAN Plus Three and the East Asia Summit; reinforcing ASEAN’s engagement with the existing external partners or establishing new ones where possible.

An ambitious program, but not exempt from implementation challenges. Besides the most obvious ones, a key challenge will be to reinforce new technologies and the digital sector, and to shift towards a more sustainable economic development model. For this latter, greater efforts will be needed for the energy security sector, the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and the support of Micro, Small, and Medium Enterprises. Despite an agenda already packed with challenges, there is another sensitive issue: last February’s coup d’état in Myanmar. As 2021 Chair, Brunei already called for dialogue, reconciliation, and return to normalcy in Myanmar following the ASEAN Charter principles: democracy, rule of law and good governance, respect for and protection of human rights, and fundamental freedoms.

The path along Brunei’s Presidency will be particularly fraught with obstacles this year. We hope that, despite the challenges, the country will convey the right energy to face difficulties and work in harmony with its partners for a more prosperous, pacific, and inclusive South-East Asian region.

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