Strengthening India-Brunei Darussalam Relations: Moving towards greater strategic bonds

 By Gitanjali Sinha Roy
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India and Brunei Darussalam share a long history of diplomatic relations since 1984 and this relationship is being harnessed in the present times as well. Brunei Darussalam is one of the most important ASEAN countries for India as it has a curveted position in India’s Act East Policy (AEP) and Indo-Pacific Policy. Being an energy-rich maritime nation, the importance of Brunei Darussalam should be seen from India’s strategic perspective. Over the years, both the countries have worked in the multiple areas like maritime engagement, defence cooperation, economic relations, and exchanges, diplomatic convergences along with people-to-people, and have aimed to work on holistic bilateral ties. India is working on increasing its geostrategic imprint in the Southeast Asia region and to further, increase and expand its influence, India needs to reinvigorate its foreign policy towards Brunei and more focus must be invested towards Brunei.

The diplomatic relations between India and Brunei started in May 1984 but it took centre stage on 18 May 1993 when India set up its High Commission in Brunei. This was done as both the countries started to cooperate in the realm of exporting crude oil from Brunei which wasn’t only essential for India but also contributed to India’s energy security. The relationship and interaction between people-to-people were important. Also, there has been an ever-growing Indian diaspora in Brunei with 11,500 Indian nationals living and working in Brunei. Regionally too, Brunei is important for India as it is an ASEAN member, and the ‘Act East Policy’ of India aims to deepen relations with ASEAN members. Brunei was the Country Coordinator for India in ASEAN from July 2012 to June 2015 and during this tenure, the relations between India and Brunei began to become close. The diplomatic ties had strengthened as the Sultan of Brunei Haji Hassanal Bolkiah had made his first visit to India in September 1992 and later in May 2008, the Sultan made his second State visit to India. This visit gained a lot of diplomatic mileage as some important MoUs and Agreements had been signed like the “Agreement on Reciprocal Promotion and Protection of Investments, MoUs on Cooperation in Information and Communication Technology, Cooperation in the field of Culture, Arts and Sports, the establishment of Joint Trade Committee and the Renewal of MoU on Cooperation in the Operation of the Telemetry Tracking and Command (TTC) Station for Satellite and Launch Vehicles and for Cooperation in the field of Space Research Science and Applications”[1] and this paved the way for a new road for cooperation between the two countries.

Another major diplomatic visit by the then Vice President of India M. Hamid Ansari to Brunei from 1 to 3 February 2016 had taken place. They agreed upon bilateral cooperation in defence, health, youth, and sports affairs. In the realm of defence, the two countries agreed to bilaterally cooperate through exchanges of experiences, information, training and trainers along with conduct joint military exercises, seminars and discussions and work to cooperate in defence industries. They also agreed upon health where they aimed to cooperate in pooling technical, scientific, financial and human resources and aimed at the up-gradation of healthcare facilities and medical education. The other two realms of cooperation were youth and sports affairs and here, they aimed at a framework of exchanges between sports persons and sports teams and facilitated the exchange of expertise in coaching, sports talent identification, sports management and administration, and exchange of information in the field of youth affairs. This visit further strengthened relations and the major focus was on defence as China’s aggressiveness in the South China Sea became a major cause of concern as Chinese activities grew since 2011. Seeing the aggressive growth of China, a Bruneian ship- ‘KDB Darulaman’ participated in MILAN 2012 and this was the first time when a Bruneian Naval ship had ventured into the South China Sea.

A major turning point between India and Brunei was when India had hosted the heads of the State of the ASEAN countries as Chief Guests and along with that attended the high-level delegation to participate in the Special Summit to commemorate 25 years of ASEAN-India Partnership Dialogue on 25 January 2018 and since then Brunei emerged as a front runner in India’s strategic interest as India exports oil and gas from Brunei and the strategic placement of Brunei is of vital importance due to India’s maritime interest in the South China Sea especially. Brunei is important in India’s Act East Policy as Brunei would also be a market for India’s goods and would help in each other’s economic growth and stability.

India has continued to engage with Brunei even in the COVID times and the relations have improved as India announced an economic stimulus package of 22 billion US$ along with sectoral incentives to assist the businesses. India also helped Brunei in the inter-alia loans, moratorium on debt repayments, relief for MSMEs, distribution of free and direct food supplies, financial assistance to the poor and the vulnerable sections of society, employment for the displaced labour forces in government schemes, easing regulations across the different sections and finally, increasing financial liquidity in the market.[2]

India needs to find multiple ways to enhance cooperation with Brunei so, that Brunei too realises India’s efforts and warms up more to India. To increase greater levels of cooperation, the two countries must look at ways to work in unison.

In order to increase greater interactions and cooperation between India and Brunei, both the countries must work towards the following steps.

  • India needs to look at ways to deeply involve Brunei Darussalam in India’s strategic thinking and that can only be achieved if India pays equal attention and envisages Brunei as one of the gateways to Southeast Asia and work to build co-dependent and cooperative projects in the field of connectivity and greater defence exchanges. India also needs to work in collaboration with the United States of America as the US and China has extensively worked with Brunei and India needs to be a major representative of South Asia and work on future engagements.
  • India must work on greater maritime relations with Brunei as it does with other countries like Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam and focus on giving Brunei the same level of commitment and interaction as maritime partners. India must work on ways to collaborate with Brunei and work on Brunei’s main port Muara which is one of the main ports in Southeast Asia as the bulk of the gas and oil passes through this port to reach India. India should work on further developing the Muara port and also, work on interconnecting the ports of India’s Eastern coast like Chennai, Tuticorin, Visakhapatnam, Paradip, Kolkata, and Ennore. 
  • Muara is of strategic importance as it is in the South China Sea. Chinese aggressiveness and belligerence in the South China Sea are at an all high especially since the coronavirus spread and China has been at logger heads with Vietnam and the Philippines respectively. Brunei must also understand that trusting China mayn’t be the best thing to do and Brunei must work to engage with other like-minded nations who are also suffering China’s aggressiveness. Thereby, Brunei must look at India, Japan, Australia, and the US all the Quad members. Brunei being an ASEAN country is in sync with the Indo-Pacific Policy of free and open sea-lanes of communication and freedom of navigation and must look at ways to protect the Muara port from Chinese expansionism.
  • There is a future possibility for a maritime Chain of ports to tackle Chinese aggression in the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean and this can be done by connecting ports of India’s Eastern Coast to Andaman and Nicobar Islands to Indonesia’s Subang to Brunei’s Muara to Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay to Philippines port Cebu to Japan’s Okinawa. These ports would not only create a maritime chain of ports but also create a supply chain that would benefit the Southeast Asian countries and help boost their economies and reduce dependence on China. Later, this maritime chain of ports could also be used for Defence exercises and create an environment of mutual trust and pave the way for logistics agreements and monitor Chinese movement in the South China Sea.
  • India and Brunei can work in the defence cooperation field as well. Brunei can import military equipment from India and this would help boost India’s defence industry. India and Brunei can invite other Southeast Asian countries to a joint military exercise and this would help India strengthen its defence ties in the realm of Southeast Asia. India can also invite Brunei to participate in Trilateral Naval Exercise Singapore-India-Thailand Maritime Exercise (SITMEX) and this would help India improve and expand its maritime links along with securing the Andaman Sea.
  • India is aiming for Aatmanirbar(self-reliant) which aims at the growth of the economy, infrastructure, technological innovations that would spread to the length and breadth of India and this policy focuses upon agriculture, agri-business, rural and urban development, and digitalisation. India could also help Brunei set up these focus areas and that would help greater interaction and interconnectedness through the use of technological innovation and digitalisation.
  • Brunei would be the ASEAN Chairman in 2021 and India must do its best to support Brunei in ASEAN and also work on strengthening relations so, as to develop better cooperation and collaboration. India must find ways and give suggestions to Brunei with regard to the post-COVID situation which needs to be dealt with amongst the ASEAN countries and by doing this, Brunei would be a successful Chairman in ASEAN but India would have gained higher regard in the eyes of Brunei.

The above-mentioned steps along with a reinvigorated approach towards Brunei would help India develop stronger relations and would take the relations between the two countries to greater heights of cooperation and collaboration in the future and further, strengthen India’s Act East Policy within the ASEAN countries.

End-Notes

[1] Ministry of External Affairs, “High Commission of India-Brunei Darussalam: India Brunei Bilateral Relations” https://www.hcindiabrunei.gov.in/page/india-brunei-bilateral/ Accessed on December 17, 2020.

[2] Working together to enhance India-Brunei relations, Borneo Bulletin dated August 16, 2020. https://borneobulletin.com.bn/2020/08/working-together-to-enhance-india-brunei-relations/, Accessed on December 12, 2020.