Optimism for UK-Brunei bilateral ties

Aziz Idris

Though short, Britain’s First Secretary of State and Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Commonwealth and Development Affairs Dominic Raab‘s two-day working visit has yielded significant optimism as to the future of the bilateral relationship between the foreign ally whose history played an important role in the development of the Sultanate.

Speaking to the Bulletin after attending several high level meetings and talks with his counterpart, Raab shared that Brunei-United Kingdom (UK) friendship is based on trade, security cooperation and regional stability, “but what stood out during this particular visit was perhaps how we can build an even stronger relationship for the future – in a post-Brexit and post-pandemic world”.

Brunei maintains long standing, warm and friendly relations with the UK, based on historical and traditional links between its people as well as the royal families.

Bilateral relations between both countries continue to be enhanced with renewed cooperation, particularly in the fields of defence – with the British Garrison – and education – approximately 1,100 Bruneians are currently studying in the UK.

During this particular visit, the UK’s First Secretary of State stressed on the importance for Brunei to rectify the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

Britain’s First Secretary of State and Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Commonwealth and Development Affairs Dominic Raab tours the Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien Mosque

Raab said the UK is working hard on negotiating new trade deals as an independent, sovereign country.

The envoy met with his counterpart, and good friend, Minister of Foreign Affairs II Dato Seri Setia Awang Haji Erywan bin Pehin Datu Pekerma Jaya Haji Mohd Yusof to facilitate on the matter.

“Brunei has signed but has not yet rectified the CPTPP agreement,” shared Raab, adding that the UK is also keen to join the trade agreement along other countries in the region including Indonesia and Thailand.

Brunei is one of the 11 countries that signed the new CPTPP pact, which includes Australia, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.

Today, the 11 countries’ combined economies represent 13.4 per cent of global GDP (about USD13.5 trillion), making the CPTPP the fourth largest free trade area in the world after NAFTA, the European Union (EU) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

This year, after Brexit, the status of the UK as a full dialogue partner of ASEAN is also a hot issue.

ASEAN has placed a moratorium on the number of dialogue partners for the past two decades. London has expressed a strong desire to become a dialogue partner as soon as possible.

The UK’s First Secretary of State joined the second UK-ASEAN ministerial dialogue, to explore Dialogue Partner status for the UK, before returning to the UK.

“The UK has put in a bid as ASEAN dialogue partner – as a force for good in the region. So I’ve been talking here with our friends in Brunei who are chairing ASEAN on how we progress that bid,” said Raab.

“The UK wants a closer relationship with ASEAN. We are already close partners working together on COVID-19, climate change and the Myanmar coup, but we want to go further as a dialogue partner.”

Brunei holding the chairmanship for this year’s ASEAN Summit is timely while the UK will host the 26th United Nations (UN) Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow later in the year, and both nations share aims to highlight sustainability and digitalisations. This “makes both nations natural partners”, shared Raab.

“COP26 is a big moment for the UK. It is not just dealing with public health challenges but also building back the economy stronger for a more sustainable and more resilient future – green energy,” he added.

Britain’s first secretary also learned about Brunei Darussalam National Climate Change Policy (BNCCP) which aims to pave climate change resilient pathways for a sustainable nation.

The UK expressed interest in Brunei’s economic diversification efforts and potential areas of cooperation including Fintech and renewable energy.

“We are interested in the innovative, dynamic approach in Brunei in terms of renewable technologies. We are trying to do the same in the UK,” he said.

The two-way trade between the UK and ASEAN in 2019 was GBP41.7 billion (USD52.13 billion), a 12.2-per-cent increase from the year before.

UK exports to ASEAN member states in 2019 amounted to GBP11.4 billion (58.4 per cent goods; 41.6 per cent services). UK imports totalled GBP22.3 billion (USD27.9 billion) (70.2 per cent goods; 29.8 per cent services) in 2019.

On a more general level, Raab said, “The UK-Brunei relationship has a rich history, starting off with His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izzaddin Waddaulah ibni Al-Marhum Sultan Haji Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien Sa’adul Khairi Waddien, Sultan and Yang Di-Pertuan of Brunei Darussalam and Her Majesty the Queen.”

Raab added that despite the fact that the UK-Brunei relationship has always been concrete, “we can actually do more to support each other and we look forward to building an even stronger relationship for the future.”

The highlight of the UK first secretary’s two-day visit to the Sultanate was an audience with His Majesty at Istana Nurul Iman.

During the audience ceremony, His Majesty and Raab discussed bilateral cooperation and regional issues of mutual importance to Brunei and the UK, which reflects the longstanding relations between both countries.

According to Raab, the audience also reaffirmed the UK’s commitments and huge admiration for His Majesty.

The UK first secretary’s trip comes ahead of the first deployment of aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth to the Indo-Pacific region, leading the UK Carrier Strike Group, later this year.

“This is my fourth visit to the region; to two key strategic partners, because the Indo-Pacific tilt is vital for the UK to grasp the economic opportunities and rise to the new challenges ahead,” Raab said.

“We have forged bilateral cooperation for development in various fields. This visit has explored ways where we can do more, and we are optimistic of making good progress,” he added.

The UK’s Integrated Review on foreign and security policy, published last month, said that Britain needs to “engage more deeply” in the region.

“Our goal: we will be the European partner with the broadest and most integrated presence in the Indo-Pacific,” the review said. “In the decades to come it will be the crucible for many of the most pressing global challenges – from climate and biodiversity to maritime security and geopolitical competition linked to rules and norms.”