Late last week, a report surfaced that Britain risks losing a military base in Brunei following its election results next month. Though the speculation may appear premature at this stage, it has nonetheless put the spotlight on how domestic politics in both Brunei and Britain can spill over into security issues.
As I have noted before in these pages, the U.K.-Brunei defense relationship is a longstanding one, and it has continued even following the Southeast Asian state’s independence from Britain in 1984. Indeed, Britain still maintains a strategic military presence in Brunei today in one of the few such arrangements it has globally, and both sides continue to maintain close security ties, with a memorandum of understanding on defense cooperation inked back in 2002 including aspects such as visits, exercises, trainings, and education.
That has continued on into 2019 as well, with developments in Britain’s ties with Brunei as well as talk of Britain even boosting its military presence in the Indo-Pacific more generally. But at the same time, over the past year, Britain’s military presence in Brunei has been caught in a wider concern about Brunei’s evolving politics, particularly regarding stricter sharia laws that surfaced earlier this year. Beyond expressing concerns about rights, then-Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson said earlier this year that Britain had begun discussions with Brunei to ensure that aspects of these laws, including those targeting homosexuals, did not affect British personnel in Brunei.
Over the weekend, a new report surfaced suggesting that Britain could lose its base in Brunei in the coming months over these concerns. The article, published in The Telegraph, cited anonymous senior defense officials as warning that Britain could lose its base next year if a Labor government under Jeremy Corbyn is elected in next month’s election in Britain.
The article did not mention the exact nature of the warnings, beyond previously known concerns raised by British politicians about developments in Brunei. But the suggestion was that insiders at the defense ministry were worried that the base “would be in serious doubt,” with concerns held by some members of a potential Corbyn government and other groups (including gay rights activists) threatening the prospects for the renewal of the five-year base lease in February 2020.
Based on the information made available in the article itself, the speculation seems premature. Britain continues to recognize the strategic advantages it gains from the base in Brunei, including for aspects such as jungle warfare training. Indications have been that both countries would be able to manage these differences while not breaking off ties dramatically in certain realms. Indeed, I as noted before, previous reports publicly disclosed that British officials have already been seeking assurances from Brunei on their specific concerns.
Nonetheless, the continued attention to the issue is a vivid illustration of how the evolution of domestic politics – in this case, both in Brunei and in Britain – can lead to concerns that spill over into security issues as well. Seen from that perspective, how the base question shapes up in the coming months will be interesting to watch.