Earlier this month, Brunei saw the opening of a bridge that had been partly built with the help of China. The unveiling of the project spotlighted the ongoing collaboration between the two countries that has continued even amid broader challenges including the management of the global coronavirus pandemic.
China and Brunei have contemporary diplomatic ties that date back to 1991, with relations upgraded to the level of a strategic cooperative relationship back in 2018. While both sides continue to have challenges in their ties, including the management of the South China Sea issue where both are claimants, much of the focus has been on the economic side of ties, including Brunei’s role in China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
One of the key projects in China-Brunei relations is the 30-kilometer Temburong Bridge, intended to link the capital of Bandar Seri Begawan with Temburong district – traditionally geographically isolated from the rest of Brunei – in a way that would substantially reduce traveling time and bypassing Malaysia’s Limbang. The bridge, the longest in Southeast Asia and the largest ongoing transportation infrastructure project in Brunei, has been in the spotlight within the broader trend of growing economic ties between China and Brunei.
On March 17, China and Brunei opened the Temburong Bridge. The opening of the bridge came as Brunei – the smallest country in Southeast Asia by population – has seen the number of coronavirus cases in the country rising, with all countries in the region now having at least one confirmed case.
The opening of the bridge amid the coronavirus has brought about its share of opportunities and challenges. On the one hand, it has afforded a pathway for Bruneians to get to Temburong without crossing over into Malaysia amid travel restrictions, in particular officials and staff involved in managing the COVID-19 outbreak to make essential travel across Brunei. But on the other hand, local media reports have indicated traffic congestion on the bridge, thereby leading the government to undertake subsequent measures including limiting the hours for the bridge’s use and increasing police patrols to punish violators.
To be sure, the true impact of the Temburong Bridge remains to be seen, and we will have to wait a few months to see how it impacts people-to-people travel and the economic development of Temburong into a so-called “green jewel” which had been one of the promising avenues with the project. Nonetheless, the unveiling amid COVID-19 illustrates both the significance of the project and the inroads both countries are continuing to make in their bilateral ties.