ASEAN in 2013: Enter Brunei

By Chayut Setboonsarng

Many challenges lie ahead of ASEAN in the next year. Security concerns will be characterised by heightened tensions in the South China Sea as the dispute continues unresolved. China has not been shy in asserting its interests in the disputed territories with the ASEAN countries and Japan over the chain of islands. Next, uncertainty in the global economy will be characterised by the rise of Asia, slow recovery of the US, and ongoing Eurozone debt crisis.

Lastly, the worsening effects of climate change will be more apparent as Thailand withstood 2011’s flooding and the Philippines is still reeling from Typhoon Bopha. ASEAN countries stand a greater chance of success if they face these challenges together. What is clear is that these forces will be testing the region’s political economy. Only through cooperation can the member states become more resilient against external pressure and shocks.

The incoming chairman of ASEAN is Brunei Darussalam. As Chair, Brunei will have the mandate to set the agenda and issue the Chairman’s Statement at the 22nd and 23rd ASEAN Summits and various ministerial meetings throughout the year. This is a powerful tool for a country with a population of 400,000. Observers have dismissed Brunei as diplomatic featherweight. However, it has considerably high stakes in ASEAN’s success. Unlike Cambodia, Brunei is a dispute party in the South China Sea. This compounds the issue and suggests that Brunei may take a stronger line against Chinese claims. How well it can persuade other ASEAN countries, especially non-claimants in Beijing’s satellite, will hinge on the diplomatic prowess of its statesmen. Brunei’s Foreign Minister Prince Mohamed Bolkiah has famously advocated for “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.

In the economic realm, ASEAN will continue to work towards the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), which is severely behind schedule. However, the AEC will be high on the agenda of the next chairman. While it is the responsibility of the member countries to accelerate this AEC blueprint, Brunei will have to be the stimulus. Economic cooperation matches Brunei’s policy of diversifying from its oil wealth and developing other sectors of the economy; all of new partnerships in the AEC can help it achieve this objective.

Cooperation in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) is also pressing. This provides a venue for ASEAN, through Brunei’s chairmanship, to engage with ASEAN’s dialogue partners. In addition to the urgency, leaders consider HADR less politically sensitive making it a good area for collaboration. ASEAN can work with its dialogue partners in improving HADR such as faster response time and long-term solutions for addressing climate change.

Lastly, the ASEAN Secretariat will also welcome a new Secretary-General, Le Loung Minh from Vietnam. A seasoned diplomat, Mr Loung Minh was formerly Vietnam’s ambassador to the United Nations in New York City and Geneva and President of the UN Security Council in 2008. His five years at the Secretariat will be devoted to increasing the efficiency of the Secretariat and improving the monumental task of coordinating the actions and commitment of the ten countries.

2013 will be a critical year for ASEAN. The challenges carried over from the previous year will be more intense. The ASEAN integration process is deeply under resourced. Commitment to ASEAN community building from the people, businesses, and political leadership from all the countries will be crucial. The message Brunei is sending to ASEAN and the world is: thrusters on full.


The views expressed in this piece are solely the opinion of the author and does not reflect the official policy of any agency.

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