On May 31, Brunei launched the newest iteration of the country’s defense white paper. Though the development was anticipated and somewhat buried in the international headlines amid other regional developments, it nonetheless provided a sense of the country’s ongoing defense thinking and how it fits in with its broader domestic and foreign policy priorities.
Though the tiny, oil-rich sultanate is sometimes overlooked within Southeast Asia, it does exercise its own influence in various ways with respect to regional security developments, be it in its role as a quiet claimant in the South China Sea disputes or the advancing of functional defense priorities such as counterterrorism and military confidence-building within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Brunei’s occasional release of white papers has provided an occasional glimpse into its defense priorities, which often do take a relatively lower profile. Following the first publicly released defense white paper in 2004 and the second and third in 2007 and 2011, the country’s officials had been suggesting for a few years now that the next iteration would be released in 2021, in conjunction with the 60th anniversary of the Royal Brunei Armed Forces (RBAF), as well as its holding of the rotating chairmanship of ASEAN.
On May 31, Brunei finally released its new defense white paper, a development that was somewhat overshadowed headlines-wise by other regional developments during Brunei’s ASEAN chairmanship including the political crisis in Myanmar and the COVID-19 pandemic. The Defense White Paper 2021 was officially launched by Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah and other senior officials in conjunction with the RBAF Diamond Jubilee Celebration, which took place at the Brunei Arts and Handicraft Training Center in the country’s capital Bandar Seri Begawan.
The white paper, which runs to 100 pages, is divided into three substantive parts: the country’s strategic context with five key challenges specified for the next 15 years, including major power dynamics, regional and global instability, terrorism and violent extremism, technology, and natural disasters; its defense strategy and solution, including principles, ends, and ways and means; and the nation’s strategic defense capability requirements, which includes discussions of training and education, equipment, personnel, intelligence and information, policy, doctrine and concepts, organization, infrastructure, and logistics.
The document unsurprisingly builds on existing foundations, including the Wawasan 2035 vision and the three strategic defense pillars of deterrence and response, defense diplomacy, and holistic defense, or the seven priority areas reflected in the acronym IKWONDAMAI. Yet there are also notable changes observed at the outset and throughout the document, including the focus on hybrid/grey zone threats, joint operations, and self-reliance, as well as calls for reforms in components such as training and education, personnel management, and force structure. That overall sense of having to adapt to an increasingly challenging security landscape was also captured in official characterizations of the white paper launch, including by the defense ministry.
To be sure, the utility of the document will rest on the extent to which its recommendations are actually translated into practice with respect to Brunei’s defense outlook, such as the completion of what is characterized as an “all-encompassing Force Capability Review” as well the transition to a regularized white paper release every five years. More broadly, as useful as the document may be in providing a sense of Brunei’s general defense thinking, it is only one aspect of broader defense policy, which rests on other factors, including budget allocations, alignments, and threat prioritization.
Nonetheless, the new white paper at the very least provides a fresh guidepost to assess Brunei’s security outlook, which often does not get much publicity or make many international headlines. As such, its development and effects on the country will continue to be important to watch in the next few years amid the country’s evolving domestic and foreign policy challenges.