Last week, Malaysia’s new defense chief was in Brunei for a scheduled introductory visit. The interaction put the focus on the Malaysia-Brunei defense relationship and the broader state of bilateral ties more generally.
As I have noted before in these pages, Malaysia and Brunei, two Southeast Asian states and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), have a bilateral relationship that dates back to 1984 when Brunei got its independence from Britain. Both states share a land border and cultural and linguistic similarities, and have attempted to forge greater cooperation over the years in spite of some differences over boundaries and borders, including on the defense side, which includes various aspects such as visits and exchanges, training, as well as exercises.
The cultivation of defense ties has continued on into 2018 as well following former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s return to the premiership after a shock election victory by the opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH) government in May. Indeed, both countries just came off of the conclusion of two key bilateral exercises within the bilateral defense relationship: Exercise Malbru Setia, an annual military exercise conducted between the Malaysian Army and the Royal Brunei Armed Forces (RBAF), and exercise Mertak Bersatu conducted by the Malaysian Army and held every two years in Sabah.
Last week, the defense aspect of the relationship was in focus again with the visit of Malaysia’s defense chief to Brunei. Malaysia’s Chief of Defense Forces Zulkifli Zainal Abidin was in Brunei for a three-day introductory visit which kicked off on December 3, following his appointment to his new position that had occurred in June 2018. He was accompanied by other Malaysian defense and diplomatic officials as well.
During his visit, Zulkifli met with a range of officials including the Commander of the Royal Brunei Armed Forces (RBAF), the Second Minister of Defense, and Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, who also holds the defense minister portfolio in Brunei. His trip also included other interactions such as a scheduled lecture delivered at the Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies attended by Brunei officials and personnel.
Unsurprisingly not much in the way of specifics was publicly disclosed by both sides about their private discussions. Nonetheless, Brunei’s defense ministry said that both sides had reviewed aspect of bilateral ties and had also expressed hope to progress the defense relationship further in the coming years.