On September 25, a Chinese naval fleet arrived at Brunei’s largest port for a three-day exchange in the country. The interaction is just one manifestation of the growing relationship between the two countries amid efforts particularly by Beijing to boost the defense side of its ties with the sultanate as well as Southeast Asian states more generally.
Ties between Brunei and China were actually initially quite distant relatively speaking due to various concerns including communism and sensitivities related to the kingdom’s ethnic Chinese population. But after the Cold War and increasingly so in recent years, ties have been strengthening as Brunei sees Beijing as a vital partner to diversify and strengthen its fossil-fuel-based economy while China sees the Southeast Asian state as a useful source of energy to power its economic growth as well as a helpful voice in ASEAN.
Bilateral relations have continued strengthening into this year. Indeed, earlier this month, Chinese President Xi Jinping held talks with Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah in Beijing, where he was attending the 14th China-ASEAN Expo. During the meeting, both sides stressed cooperation in several areas, primarily in the economic realm with documents inked related to infrastructure and health and the emphasis publicly placed on the Belt and Road Initiative. But defense ties were also a focus, with China mentioning defense and law enforcement cooperation as one area for further development.
This week, in one indicator of the defense ties between the two sides, a Chinese naval fleet arrived at Muara port for what Chinese state media termed a “three day friendly visit” aimed at “conveying a message of friendship and cooperation.” Upon its docking, the fleet was received by the Brunei navy, government officials, Chinese Embassy officials, as well as Chinese citizens living in Brunei.
In a speech following the fleet’s arrival, Shen Hao, commander of the fleet, emphasized in the welcoming ceremony that friendly exchanges between the two countries date back 1,500 years ago, Xinhua reported. During the visit, the Chinese navy fleet and its personnel were expected to hold several joint activities with their Bruneian counterparts, including exchanges and sports matches. No further details were publicly provided on these engagements.
Of course, such engagements between Brunei and China ought to be placed in a broader context along several dimensions, be it the kingdom’s pursuit of ties with other countries like Japan or Singapore or forms of cooperation that Beijing would like to have but have yet to be realized (See: “Japan Military Aircraft in Brunei Spotlights Defense Ties“). Yet within the larger frame of China’s growing security ties with ASEAN states as well as other defense-related issues like the South China Sea disputes – where Brunei has been a notoriously quiet claimant of late – these developments bear watching (See: “Does ASEAN Have A South China Sea Position?“).