Brunei’s ASEAN Chairmanship 2021
Updated: Feb 24
Photo Source: The Scoop
Brunei’s fifth chairing of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) since joining the regional association in 1987 provides an opportunity for leadership in increasingly tense and uncertain times. The theme of Brunei’s Chairmanship is “We Care, We Prepare, We Prosper”, a continuation of Vietnam’s 2020 Chairmanship theme “Cohesive and Responsive” and Brunei’s previous 2013 theme “Our People, Our Future Together.” All three themes emphasize a holistic multilateral approach to regional concerns for the benefit of ASEAN member states and their people. Brunei announced its commitment to continuing the work of Vietnam’s Chairmanship. While Brunei faces similar challenges to its previous Chairmanship, such as the tensions in the South China Sea and the role of the U.S. in regional affairs, it has an added unique challenge this year with the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and the campaign to combat it.
The COVID-19 pandemic has adversely affected the status quo. Brunei has stated that the COVID-19 pandemic has been the most disruptive in ASEAN’s history and has made combatting the pandemic its top priority. Initial responses throughout ASEAN were mixed, ranging from Vietnam and Singapore implementing measures quickly to Indonesia and the Philippines having their respective overstretched healthcare systems further strained, but over time the policies across the region began to converge owing to a collective response discussed as early as January 2020. In a press release by the Chairman of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Retreat last 21 January 2021, member states have agreed to use the COVID-19 ASEAN Response Fund to acquire vaccines and other medical supplies for the ASEAN people. The pandemic has been used as a basis to fast-track initiatives approved during the 37th ASEAN Summit held last 12 November 2020 under Vietnam’s Chairmanship. Such projects include the ASEAN Comprehensive Recovery Framework, designed for the long-term socio-economic recovery after the pandemic; the ASEAN Travel Corridor Arrangement Framework, which seeks to ensure essential business travel while prioritizing safety; and the ASEAN Strategic Framework for Public Health Emergencies, designed to enhance existing health mechanisms and prepare for future diseases.
While Brunei has stressed the relation between combatting the pandemic and economic recoveries, it is only one-third of the economic priorities. It has categorized its economic priorities into three: Recovery, digitalization, and sustainability. It has stressed the need for ASEAN states to focus on complementing their economies rather than engaging in unhealthy competition. This is necessary to attract external partners into the regional market and to grow inclusive economies. Related to this are Brunei’s emphasis and reaffirmation on economic initiatives such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, partnering ASEAN’s markets with that of various developed and bigger markets; the first ASEAN Digital Ministers Meeting, which was held to discuss further digital cooperation and advancement; and the continuation of the ASEAN Smart Cities Network established in 2018 which has garnered various positive outcomes for the region. A regional framework going forward has already proven effective in the convergence of each state’s policy towards the pandemic. ASEAN is in a stronger position to enact its initiatives as discussions have continued via online meetings .
That said, Brunei’s Chairmanship, and ASEAN as a whole, faces an additional challenge. A military coup usurped the elected government of Myanmar on February 1, garnering condemnation from many countries and international organizations. But reactions in ASEAN have been mixed. Fellow ASEAN member states Cambodia, Thailand, and the Philippines initially called the coup an internal matter for Myanmar. Other states expressed concern and called for a peaceful resolution. Brunei as Chair issued a statement on the day of the coup calling for adherence to the ASEAN Charter and the rule of law. It also emphasized that the political stability of member states was key for the entire region. As of writing, Brunei is consulting with other member states on a joint statement. Should it succeed in acquiring the backing of all member states, Brunei can show early on its ability to lead the region despite the unprecedented combination of internal and external challenges. Of course, this is dependent on Myanmar itself. Should the situation take a turn for the worse, it will hamper any regional agenda that Brunei has planned.
However, despite these challenges, the issue of the South China Sea remains the most contentious. This is made more so with the recent change in China’s Coast Guard Law which authorizes the use of lethal force on foreign vessels. Brunei has a small claim in the disputed territory but has rarely made any public remarks to other claimants. A partial explanation for this lies with Brunei having accepted billions of dollars of Chinese investments. However, this silence was broken on 20 July 2020 when Brunei issued a statement on the South China Sea a week after the U.S. State Department clarified its position. The Foreign Affairs Ministry statement made then is consistent with Brunei’s history of Chairmanship. The 2021 Chairmanship statement and the statement at the 23rd ASEAN Summit held in October 2013 emphasized the formulation and implementation of a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea in line with UNCLOS and called on that all states concerned to practice self-restraint. The only major difference is that the 2021 statement has briefly specified certain “concerns” of member states of activities done by China, such as land reclamation, without explicitly referring to it by name. The only mention of China by name is when the statement praised the “improving cooperation” with ASEAN. This caution is consistent throughout the document as Brunei also called for peace and stability in the Korean Peninsula with the reaffirmation for the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.
Brunei has made it clear that the goal of its Chairmanship this year will be to lead ASEAN in the campaign against COVID-19. This will be done with the spirit of cooperation and continuity. The continuation of the various projects and initiatives approved and began at the 37th ASEAN Summit are proof of this. Brunei has also emphasized long term preparedness and sustainability. It has directed the regional economic recovery to also encompass complementary integration and to build efficient safeguards in the face of a future disaster.
All these Brunei will juggle as it seeks to facilitate peace and security in the South China Sea amid a U.S.-China rivalry . In keeping with its sense of continuity, the Brunei-led ASEAN will likely reaffirm its neutrality stance. This will be difficult as China is stepping up its vaccine diplomacy, a trend that began last year, and recently made controversial changes to its maritime policy. The U.S. has also threatened action against Myanmar following the coup. While this will most likely lead to economic sanctions, a military intervention – in other words, an increase in U.S. military presence in the region – could escalate tensions further. ASEAN will be able to keep its neutrality as long as all member states are in agreement. Brunei’s test will be to achieve consensus and stick to it.
Matthew Uy is a research assistant at Amador Research Services. He has a bachelor's degree in Political Science from De La Salle University. He has served as a research assistant on various capacities.
Joycee Teodoro holds a Master in Public Policy degree from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.
Julio S. Amador III is CEO and Founder of the Amador Research Services. He was a former government official specializing in foreign policy and national security. He lectures in different professional schools and serves as resource person on international issues. He was a Fulbright scholar at Syracuse University where he earned his master’s degree in International Relations and a certificate in security studies. He was also a member of the inaugural cohort of the KAS Network of Young Asian Security Experts.