Brunei-Malaysia in New Regional Security Conundrum

The state visit by the Sultan of Brunei to Malaysia underscores the growing importance of bilateral ties that will form one of the cornerstones of regional solidarity and cooperation. It coincides with the 24th Malaysia-Brunei Darussalam Annual Leaders’ Consultation (ALC) which remains a crucial annual platform in enhancing the whole spectrum of bilateral and regional cooperative framework and in strengthening joint understanding and synergy of capacities.

Prime Minister Anwar’s visit to Brunei earlier this year further added to the criticality of maintaining a future driven relationship that is based on the historical deep bond, trust and confidence in cultivating shared interests and efforts.

The economic front is one of the critical areas of great strategic importance for both players, in facing new non-traditional challenges in the form of economic headwinds, supply chain resilience, food and energy security and climate impact. Both countries also face similar challenges in traditional security settings, especially in the South China Sea and rising regional and global geopolitical rivalry and tensions.

In 2022, Brunei was Malaysia’s 26th largest trading partner and the 6th largest within ASEAN with a total trade amounting to US$2.98 billion, an increase of 68.4 per cent compared to the year before.

Both players also are in the midst of a strategic transformation of key economic fundamentals that will create a sustaining and critical shield in facing future headwinds, especially in the spheres of energy transition and carbon initiative. As both Malaysia and Brunei rely heavily on oil and gas assets in fuelling the economic needs and progress, both will need a strategic synergy of overarching interdependence and cultivation of shared assets and advantages in projecting a united front in facing future regional and global risks and challenges.

Areas of low hanging fruits include spearheading greater exchanges in talent and expertise, economic and investment opportunities that will have strategic spillover impact, critical research and higher education mobility, tourism and greater people to people connections.

The transition towards a digital and knowledge economy based on the high impact value chain of critical sectors and technologies including green and renewable energy, the chips and semiconductor industry, artificial intelligence and digital led innovation, high impact scientific assets including space and quantum technologies form the foundational push towards the leap. Both countries need the pushing tools and factors in propelling the new shifts and transitions, away from the conventional models and tools of economic development.

Brunei-Malaysia ties have vast untapped potential that will provide greater returns especially in economic and security developments.

Both are in the Brunei Darussalam–Indonesia–Malaysia–Philippines East ASEAN Growth Area (BIMP-EAGA) framework, which is an intergovernmental economic cooperation program geared to promote private sector-led and market-driven growth. Launched In 1994, the BIMP-EAGA initiative that consists of Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines seeks to boost growth in trade, investments, and tourism through new intra-region shipping routes and air links as well as power interconnection projects.

Other key areas of cooperation include agribusiness, tourism, the environment, and socio-cultural education. Areas of clean and renewable energy are now increasingly critical in this regard, and all four countries strategically complement one another in forming a credible bulwark of strategic interdependence on key sectors that will have lasting effects for regional growth and for ASEAN economic cultivation.

The new prospects for an enhanced economic and progressive development in the Nusantara capital relocation of Indonesia will further add long term value to this initiative and to spur deeper economic and infrastructure development in bridging rural-urban divide, improve literacy and digital rate and enhance joint progressive development models in producing impactful and targeted progress in the region.

Brunei’s construct and imagination of maritime security and its security priorities are driven heavily by developments taking place within the country’s immediate periphery.

The major risks facing Brunei’s economy are mainly from domestic factors because of its high reliance on the oil and gas sector. Notwithstanding the fact that the government has enhanced its effort to develop other industries, the role and level of the oil and gas sector in GDP growth, exports, and fiscal revenue remain high. An unexpectedly large shortfall in oil and LNG production in the past has affected economic growth, and so did headwinds in the volatility of oil prices.

Policy efforts on structural reforms and to diversify the economy away from the oil and gas sector into manufacturing, tourism, agriculture, aquaculture and other non-traditional industries will be projected to be the main focus on Brunei’s economic transformation. All these will need the right and strategic capitalisation on Malaysia’s parallel focus and shift in these new ventures and transformations and will remain the core cooperation fundamentals between the two countries. should be continued to enhance Brunei Darussalam’s long-term growth prospects.

Both Brunei and Malaysia are also in the Washington led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF). This serves as the cornerstone in spearheading a value-based development model and in upholding the main pillars of this framework which include. fair and resilient trade,supply chain resilience, and infrastructure, clean energy, and decarbonization. These fundamentals provide a credible support shield in creating new incentivization tools of progressive economic priorities on key growth areas of the future.

These include the importance of supply chain security and a fair and resilient trade ecosystem that includes a safe and open trade route and the abidance on a rules-based maritime order that is critical to ensure supply chain and trade security which are crucial not only to both Brunei and Malaysia but to regional stability. Other pillars in this IPEF framework include the focus on clean energy and decarbonization along with infrastructure development, which remain the new needed capacity building priorities for the region and for both countries amidst the new shift in geostrategic and socio-economic demands.

Malaysia remains one of its closest and most crucial partners in bolstering heightened responsive and deterrence capacity. The 2021 Defence White Paper of Brunei shows A greater strategic importance to Brunei’s maritime domain in light of increasing security risks and vulnerabilities. It identifies increasing risks surrounding overlapping claims and emerging threats to the safety of sea lines, communication and trade routes.

Maritime security and stability remain of utmost importance for both Brunei and Malaysia, and Brunei has also enhanced its partnership in this regard. Examples include the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) maritime exercise with the US, , focusing on the full spectrum of naval capabilities and features cooperative evolutions that highlight the ability of the U.S. and Brunei to work together towards ensuring a free and open Indo-Pacific maritime security environment.

CARAT expands bilateral and multilateral exercises; ensures maritime security, stability, and prosperity; and highlights the U.S.’s commitment to the region and to a free and open Indo-Pacific.

As the security landscape in the South China Sea continues to rapidly evolve, ASEAN and its related conflict prevention mechanisms remain one of the most important regional platforms for both countries, in deriving the economic and peace dividends and will continue to be a vital front in both protecting the interests of both countries but also in ensuring a collective and a more united and cohesive voice in ensuring stability, prosperity and a rules-based adherence by external powers and internal players.

Greater synergy and integration of joint efforts for shared interests will be among the most important fundamentals, elevating the importance of shared roots, trust and understanding and in capitalising on shared strengths. Malaysia-Brunei ties will need to be further enhanced and protected, for they remain the bedrock of bilateral and regional strength.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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