China’s continued encroachment to the South China Seas and its build-up of military bases in the area have sparked both loud condemnation and praise by many nations. The US and her allies, particularly the ASEAN nations (Malaysia, Philippines, and Vietnam) strongly condemned China’s actions. Meanwhile Russia praised China’s resolve for defiantly standing up against what it calls the “American encirclement”. In a press release made by Russia’s foreign minister few days ago, he expressed his country’s support for China by declaring a joint-military exercise to be held in China as well as in Brunei in 2016 (1).
Brunei is a tiny country of roughly 450,000 people nestled on the middle-northern part of Borneo. What made Brunei ally with China is quite unknown, but its stance by having agreed to facilitate Russian and Chinese joint-military exercise, has inevitably made the international community perceive Brunei as a serious ally to both nations. This article express a pragmatic approach for Brunei Darussalam to navigate and make the most of the opportunities amidst the rising uncertainty resulting from the Spartly crisis, and while at the same time securing national defense and security in the long-haul. There are five key areas that must be looked into by policy-makers or the interested readers.
First, Brunei Darussalam has to involve a lot of youths to the PKBN programme, a three-month voluntary conscription programme, in order to build the country’s military preparedness. Should Russia or China or Brunei continue in its resolve to hold its joint-military training in 2016, the youths have to be involved so as to strengthen and widen their military, leadership experience. The exercise also presents a good opportunity in learning from these two superpowers of their military tacit knowledge or know-hows. Weapons may also be deployed in Brunei soil by the Russians and Chinese for their strategic defense, providing locals access to new military engineering and defense capabilities.
Second, the country has to prepare for the ‘China Century’. Napoleon remarked how China was a sleeping dragon in the 17th century. China is not asleep anymore. As a rising global superpower, it is fully awake and it is prepared to assert itself in the new world order, as it is doing now in the region despite the loud protests. With Brunei serving as China’s ally, there is not much option but to prepare and profit from their ascent. People may retort how opportunist the approach is, but consider that Brunei is not the only country to do so and certainly it will not be the last. It is also a pragmatic policy bent in pursuing the national interest. Brunei has to adapt to the situation around it. One policy that might be in place to winning in the ‘China Century’ would be by introducing optional mandarin classes in the educational system.
Third, to prepare the youths to dabble and specialize in the Oil and Gas industry, such as producing more engineers and executive managers. There will be a new “oil boom” for Brunei that could be resulted from China’s conquest of South China Sea. As a staunch Chinese ally, Brunei can gain tremendously in the long-run by means of contracting opportunities in the area. But in order to win over those contracts, Bruneians have to improve their company’s competitiveness and productivity. Otherwise all those contracts would go off to China or Russia’s State Owned Companies instead. As the ushering of Brunei into a new era dawns, its people must be ready to make the most of the opportunities presented by its allies.
Fourth, for Brunei to continue to strengthen and diversify its economic foundation to make it “self-reliant”. Not-so friendly nations might affect Brunei through economic means, i.e. blockade, trade embargoes. If Brunei experiences blockade or trade embargo, its allies must commit in sustaining the Brunei economy in the long-run. If not, they are not worth to be called allies in the first place and Brunei, in the principle of maintain its strategic interest, must break that alliance immediately. Brunei must not serve as pawns in this game. If however the allies could, Bruneians must make the most of it by learning and absorbing their economic know-hows with an aim of making Brunei eventually self-reliant.
Finally, it is to create a foreign policy body aimed at formulating and promoting sophisticated arguments to maintain the friendship that exist between Brunei and the other national actors involved, i.e. by a Think Tank in Washington, USA. As the Spartly Crisis continues, Brunei will not escape in receiving criticisms from its regional counterparts and the international community. Brunei has to immediately defuse and counter what they say through sophisticated, logical arguments explaining our stance as a sovereign nation wishing to pursue its own national interest. If criticisms are not dealt with, they will grow to the point where it will win a large base of audience, and hence will be used to damage Brunei’s reputation in the ASEAN region and risk it in being labelled as China’s pawn. Hence Brunei has to build a foreign policy body to continue to tackle critics by means of logical, arguments to enable Brunei to rise above and beyond petty slanders.
To conclude, Brunei Darussalam has to enhance its PKBN programme for military preparedness, prepare and adapt to the ‘China Century’, have its youths specialize in Oil and Gas industry to capture the next ‘Oil and Gas boom’, to strengthen and diversify its economic base through its allies first and then eventually making it self-reliant, and to build a foreign policy body aimed at formulating and promoting sophisticated arguments to maintain the friendship that exist between Brunei and the other national actors involved.
Some people would said that the Spartly Crisis is only going to pass peacefully and Brunei should do nothing. If such a person exist, he does not belong to any foreign policy or any executive department.
In the bid of building ‘Wawasan 2035’ Brunei Darussalam and its people (its youths especially) has to think pragmatically in pursuing the country’s strategic interest both in the region and beyond. Russia’s entry into the game, for instance, is unexpected, but may present an opportunity for Brunei to build on both of the countries’ Oil and Gas industry. Their entry and declaration of holding a joint-military exercise to Brunei may be short-lived as the US congress and allies might just be pressuring the Brunei government to block the action at the time of this writing. But there is no doubt that in the 21st century, Brunei cannot escape in playing a role in a deeply integrated, complex world.
Either we win in the long-run or we lose out entirely. I invite readers to think and act pragmatically.