Has China Bought Brunei’s South China Sea Silence?

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Has China Bought Brunei’s South China Sea Silence?

The questions raised on the issue reflect broader concerns about how the sultanate conducts itself at home and abroad.

Has China Bought Brunei’s South China Sea Silence?
Credit: MINDEF Singapore

An abundance of oil has supported the extravagant and famous lifestyles of Brunei’s royal family and their coterie of well connected elites for decades. But it now appears the tiny sultanate has fallen on hard times, a situation that has been setting off alarm bells not only among some within the country, but also in Southeast Asia and beyond.

In particular, recent reports of growing investment from outside actors – particularly China, though also from other sources like Saudi Arabia – have led to speculation that this could affect the conduct of Brunei’s foreign policy.

The South China Sea is one particularly troubling case. Brunei has long been a quiet claimant in the disputes, with much more limited claims than the other three Southeast Asian claimants: Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam.

But recent developments have increased the scrutiny on the tiny, oil-rich sultanate. As the maritime dispute in the South China Sea heated up following Beijing’s assertiveness, members of ASEAN reacted differently, failing to present a united front.

That no doubt pleased China, which wants a better bargaining position by negotiating with its neighbors on a bilateral basis as opposed to multilateral through ASEAN. Throughout, Brunei has been dubbed the “silent claimant.”

That characterization has long begged the question of what exactly might be behind that silence. It is now being seen through the prism of the country’s dwindling economic fortunes and uncertain political future.

Brunei is no doubt aware of its dwindling oil reserves and the problems that creates for the sustainability of political power. It is therefore no surprise that we have seen developments over the past few years such as the institution of sharia law, sweeping changes to the cabinet, and crackdowns on the press and other freedoms.

But as these changes have occurred, one factor has loomed larger than others: China. Commentators have noted how the influx of investment from Beijing in recent years has coincided with the suppression of anything that might be deemed mildly critical of China as well as the silence by the sultanate on anything that might offend Beijing, including the South China Sea.

This was made apparent recently by Ahmed Mansoor, a pseudonym for a former journalist in Brunei who wrote a piece that has since been picked up by other regional publications and highly cited. Importantly, he wrote:

In exchange for US$6 billion of Chinese investment into an oil refinery and local infrastructure, along with promises to boost trade and agricultural cooperation, Brunei has remained silent on Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, refusing to criticise its biggest investor even though it has overlapping claims…[E]ven critical local press reports were enough to trigger protests from the Chinese embassy, which pressured the government to tighten controls.

The report also reinforced the point about Brunei’s declining economic fortunes, including the sharp drop in government revenue and a rising budget deficit. That has already impacted areas in foreign policy such as defense spending, and it has no doubt also affected the sultanate’s dealings with foreign actors.

Brunei had once been welcomed to the ASEAN club, and it has played a role in regional initiatives in the past as well. But with these rising domestic challenges, it is becoming more of a liability for the region than an asset.

William Mellor, a veteran and well respected regional journalist, interviewed the Sultan of Brunei last year and asked: “how long can Brunei keep punching above its weight?” In light of recent developments with respect to Brunei at home and abroad, the answer now appears to belong in the past tense.

Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt.