Brunei, a small Islamic country with a predominantly Malay population, has been ruled by the same family for over 600 years. However, there is a real concern that Brunei’s dependence on energy wealth could undermine the regime’s ability to sustain long-term economic well-being beyond the next twenty years.
By Eddie Walsh
Located on the northwest coast of Borneo, Brunei has been able to exploit vast energy resources to emerge as one of the wealthiest countries in the world in per capita terms. Apart from possible future economic uncertainty, Brunei also faces a number of other long-term internal and external security concerns which could threaten its national interests over time. For these reasons, it is important to assess Brunei’s current national security strategy based upon its core components of national interest, threats and challenges, and means and instruments. With these as a foundation, security analysts will be endowed with the resources necessary to propose insightful changes to Brunei’s current national security strategy.
Analysis of Brunei’s national security strategy should start with a review of the country’s overarching national interests and goals. Fortunately, Brunei has clearly defined these national interests in a series of defense white papers:
1. The cohesion and stability of the nation and the preservation of the constitution and monarchy;
2. A stable regional environment that enables Brunei to pursue its own interests without outside interference;
3. The maintenance of defense capabilities capable of protecting Brunei’s sovereignty, territorial claims, and independence.
These appear to reflect the core interests that the current regime would be willing to protect by use of military force.
Over the past few decades, Brunei has advanced its national interests through the maintenance of domestic and regional stability. This has been achieved through increased economic well-being at home thanks to energy wealth, cordial relations abroad – particularly with Malaysia – and strong bilateral and multilateral security arrangements with third parties.
Threats and challenges
With these national interests in mind, analysts can turn to the current security landscape to determine the threats and challenges which undermine Brunei’s ability to achieve its national goals and objectives. Broadly speaking, two types of threat categories confront Brunei – traditional and non-traditional security issues.
Composed of two divided enclaves surrounded by a large neighbor (Malaysia), Brunei is predisposed to geopolitical insecurity. This is further exacerbated by historically contested maritime interests in the South China Sea, a conflict which Robert Kaplan, in the latest edition of Foreign Policy, argues is likely to prevail well into the future. A small state, Brunei is disproportionately vulnerable to the ongoing Asian military modernization which threatens the current regional balance of power. A particular concern is Chinese military assertiveness.
Brunei is faced with numerous non-traditional security threats with the Indian Ocean tsunami having already demonstrated ASEAN members’ susceptibility to catastrophic natural disasters. Transnational crime, most prominently in the areas of piracy, drug trafficking, and cyber-crime, and environmental security threats such as forest fires and illegal logging also contribute to national insecurity. Furthermore, food security in Brunei is a little uncertain, resulting from a lack of arable land. Brunei remains highly dependent upon oil and natural gas for its economic security to the extent that domestic economic stagnation, uncertainty in global energy markets, and instability in export markets such as Japan represent serious risks for Brunei.
These threats provide a very real mechanism for generating domestic instability, especially in the absence of a political vehicle for the expression of social discontent
Means and instruments
What then are the means and instruments available to Brunei to confront such threats? According to the 2007 Defense White Paper, Brunei has prioritized a number of key initiatives, including investing in military modernization, enhancing national counter-terrorism capabilities and developing regional mechanisms to respond to catastrophic crises. The Sultan also has emphasized defense professionalization to mitigate any threat posed by a politically conscious military. An ambitious national development plan, Wawasan Brunei 2035 , promotes economic diversification, good governance and increasing food self-sufficiency while the state initiates new exploration projects to try to extend the lifespan of its energy reserves.
Aside from military and economic means, Brunei emphasizes diplomacy as a crucial tool for advancing its national interests. The 2009 bilateral Exchange of Letters with Malaysia, which established a final delimitation of maritime boundaries and set forth conditions for the resolution of the land border dispute, demonstrates the importance of diplomacy as a means of reducing Brunei’s threat landscape.
Brunei has made a significant investment in multilateral organizations, such as ASEAN and the UN, alongside developing its bilateral military relationships. Since independence, Brunei has demonstrated a preference for soft diplomacy rather than coercive military aggression to advance its national interests in the region; but, in the years ahead, it is likely that Brunei will move to strengthen its national security by improving both military and diplomatic capabilities. This will likely include supporting the development of dispute resolution mechanisms within ASEAN, the further deepening of bilateral military ties with major and regional powers and investing in net-centric military modernization.
While coercive methods will prove useful in confronting (external) discontent, these would not be as useful in the long-term in quelling domestic problems. Instead, it can be hoped that the regime will favor economic initiatives – including diversification of the domestic economy, the shoring-up of long-term energy supplies, and increasing trade and connectivity with the neighboring Malaysian state of Sarawak – as the instruments to achieve stability and success.
Published by International Relations and Security Network (ISN)