At the end of March, diplomats and military leaders from the Asia-Pacific region congregated in Indonesia for the ‘Jakarta International Defence Dialogue,’ to discuss key issues of international security and defence. Delegates from over 40 countries attended the 3-day conference representing a coup for the Indonesian government which has been aggressively moving to increase its status as one of the key architects of defence and security planning in the region.
While the meetings increased Jakarta’s international prestige, one of the unsung highlights of the conference came from Brunei’s Foreign Minister Prince Mohamed Bolkiah, who advocated the need for ‘defence diplomacy’ in the Asia-Pacific region. The doctrine of defence diplomacy argues for an amalgamation of one’s political resources with the military hardware it possesses. The concept is basic and at first glance appears to mirror the foreign policy of most progressive states. However, there’s a nuance to the notion of combining both tools of statecraft that Bolkiah spoke about, impressing his regional colleagues. Bolkiah insisted that ‘diplomacy has to be the front line of our (Asian countries) defence.’
And his poignant remarks were timely and necessary. As the Asia-Pacific region continues to develop, it’ll in turn need to train and maintain a fleet of strong diplomats who are prepared to deal with the considerable regional security problems they will surely face in the coming years.
Diplomacy efficacy is measured through personal relations and frequent communication—two ingredients which require increased coordination and perhaps even institutional guidance. Yet, despite the importance of developing Asia’s ‘political capital,’ Bolkiah reminded the forum that diplomacy is a necessary and not sufficient component to ensure peace and security in region. A credible defence posture is also necessary in order maintain continental security and, ironically, to constrain regional rivalry.
Bolkiah’s vision shouldn’t be confused with gunboat diplomacy in the early 20th century, or two-track efforts in North Korea. Brunei’s approach of defence diplomacy places a heavy emphasis on the latter tool. Bolkiah implied that there should be a shift towards human security concerns rather than a narrowed focus on national security issues. This is a novel approach in an area of the world that has, up to now, often relied on using its hard power assets to resolve disputes. Underscoring this point is the corrosive relationship between Thailand and Cambodia over a territorial dispute surrounding the Preah Vihear Temple. Both states quickly abandoned diplomatic avenues in favour of a politically-appealing military escalation. These are the types of situations that Bolkiah hopes can be avoided by an improved diplomatic capacity in the region.
Time will tell if his ideas will be put in practice by regional partners.