By Noelan Arbis
Brunei concluded its 2013 chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on October 10, when Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah handed the chairman’s gavel to president Thein Sein of Myanmar. In this role, Brunei served as host to important regional leadership gatherings, including the ASEAN Regional Forum, the East Asia Summit, and ASEAN’s summit meetings with key dialogue partners. In addition to demonstrating Bandar Seri Begawan’s diplomatic competence, despite being a tiny sultanate with less than 500,000 people, Brunei’s successful steering of this year’s regional meetings indicates that, in contrast to some harsh criticisms, ASEAN can still come together on important issues and continues to be a helpful resource for its member states.
Brunei was determined from the start of its chairmanship to not make any strategic mistakes that could undermine ASEAN’s solidarity and regional standing. In doing so, the Bruneian government understood that easing tensions between China and ASEAN claimant states, especially the Philippines and Vietnam, over the South China Sea disputes was a necessary precondition to move a broader political-security cooperation agenda forward
One of the most important developments regarding the South China Sea conflicts this year was China and ASEAN’s agreement to actively work toward a binding Code of Conduct (CoC). Three months after ASEAN leaders initiated discussions on ways to handle the South China Sea territorial disputes at a meeting in Brunei in April, China agreed to start consultations with ASEAN on a binding COC at this year’s ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). The joint communiqué issued by Chinese and Southeast Asian foreign ministers in July emphasized the need to peacefully resolve competing claims in the South China Sea, and was in stark contrast to the diplomatic impasse in Phnom Penh last year.
Brunei was able to play a constructive role by maintaining a neutral stance, despite being one of the claimants in the disputes. Sultan Bolkiah visited both Manila and Beijing in April, in an effort to help build confidence between ASEAN and Chinese leaders throughout his country’s chairmanship. More importantly, his able management of meetings’ agendas and stakeholders’ concerns helped ensure the integrity of ASEAN-hosted meetings as venues for a constructive dialogue in the Asia Pacific, while affirming Brunei’s image as a credible player within ASEAN and the region.
Brunei also pushed its ASEAN neighbors to expedite the implementation of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) blueprint, as Southeast Asia becomes increasingly central to various regional trade integration efforts. At the East Asia Summit in November, Sultan Bolkiah noted that only 79.7 percent of the AEC blueprint has been completed, and urged ASEAN leaders to intensify efforts in remaining areas if the grouping wants to meet its deadline of launching the AEC in 2015. Nonetheless, as one of the founding members of the 12-member Trans-Pacific Partnership and a negotiating party to the 16-member Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership trade agreements, Brunei’s profile is slated to increase beyond its chairmanship of ASEAN this year.
Tough issues facing the region remain as Myanmar, a country with significantly fewer resources, prepares to take on ASEAN’s chairmanship. But Brunei’s objectivity and overall seamless performance should be credited as an example for future ASEAN chairs, no matter their political leanings, to follow.