Brunei salutes US but banks on China
Recent US-Brunei joint army exercise signals stronger strategic ties but the sultanate's investment links to China still matter more
The United States Pentagon recently concluded its first army-to-army exercise in Brunei, an energy-rich Islamic sultanate with lesser noticed competing territorial claims in the contested South China Sea.
The first-time army drills come as US President Donald Trump’s administration bids to win more regional support for its China containment policies, including through freedom of navigation operations Beijing strongly opposes in the South China Sea.
The Pahlawan Warrior exercise, held from August 6-16, was strictly terrestrial-based. It included 33 US Army and Indiana Army National Guard soldiers under the US Indo-Pacific Command partnered with Royal Brunei Land Forces. The drills focused on jungle warfare operations, urban terrain tactics and other practices.
They “spent four nights located deep within the nation’s southwest rainforest” in operations observed by Hawaii-based members of the 25th Infantry Division Lighting Academy, according to the US Army Pacific Public Affairs Office.
“Bruneian soldiers taught classes on jungle survival, movement to contact, land navigation and ambush techniques,” The US Army said. The training culminated in a bilateral attack, it said.
The drills also practiced a multi-pronged attack on an enemy who occupied a three-story building, sniper assaults, troops rappelling onto a roof from a Blackhawk helicopter and Scorpion tanks firing to protect moving personnel carriers.
“Pahlawan Warrior is a truly historical event as it marks a first bilateral exercise between our two great armies,” said National Guard deputy commander Major General Timothy McKeithen.
The US Navy and Marine Corps trained with Brunei’s armed forces in
November 2017 as part of the Pentagon’s annual Cooperational Afloat
Readiness and Training (CARAT) maritime exercise.
Joint CARAT training on sea, land and air began in 1995, and the
latest round included “port security, aviation and surface warfare,
diving and salvage, military medicine, law, public affairs, along with
a comprehensive at sea exercise,” the US Navy said in a statement.
The US Marines and Royal Brunei Land Forces also staged joint Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training drills in 2014 that likewise concentrated on urban terrain training drills.
In 1994, Brunei and the US signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on military and defense cooperation, the US Embassy in Brunei said. The agreement resulted in joint exercises, training programs and other forms of military cooperation between the two nations, which is still in effect today,” the Embassy statement said.
Pahlawan Warrior “signifies the spirit of camaraderie of both exercising troops in being brave to break the ice amongst themselves, especially in the sharing of knowledge and experience to the application of techniques, tactics and procedures at the tactical level,” Royal Brunei Land Forces’ Chief of Staff, Brigadier General Kairul Hamed said.
The US training boosts Brunei’s monarch and self-appointed prime minister, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, who rules with near-absolute power over the former British protectorate. An estimated 78% of the small nation’s 425,000 population is Muslim.
Tiny Brunei is wedged into Borneo island’s north coast along the South China Sea, across the water from southern Vietnam. Brunei claims territorial rights to a few small, nearby islands contested by China, similar to claims by other Southeast Asian countries over features near their shores.
But Brunei is the smallest and weakest claimant to any islands, with little ability to enforce its claims. Washington opposes Beijing’s exclusive domination over islands in the South China Sea, including the Paracel islands and the Spratly archipelago.
President Donald Trump’s administration is wooing Southeast Asian claimants — with mixed success — to support the US position of challenging China’s perceived as expansionist claims in the maritime area.
Brunei’s increasingly important commercial relations with China, however, have kept its competing claims largely unvoiced, compared to the much more heated disputes against China by Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines in the area.
While Brunei has enjoyed lavish wealth from its oil and natural gas reserves, it has recently become vulnerable to global oil price drops and is anxious to diversify its economy before its rich stores of fossil fuels are depleted.
“Brunei remains entirely hostage to hydrocarbons,” the Japan-based Nikkei Asian Review reported. “The economy has been ravaged by the plunge in energy prices, undermining the cradle-to-grave social system funded through Brunei’s 50% holding in Brunei Shell Petroleum,” it said.
China has recently become Brunei’s biggest investor, with at least US$4 billion invested. That includes capital outlays in an oil refinery and petrochemical complex near Brunei’s capital Bandar Seri Begawan.
China has committed to invest an additional US$12 billion to assist with the complex’s expansion in coming years, along with investments in ports and aquaculture projects.
It’s not clear whether the US joint military exercises will in any way loosen China’s tightening hold over Brunei. There is potential for a culture clash if ties do deepen. During the recent military exercise, US forces needed to obey Brunei’s strict sharia laws while in public.
“When in public, travelers should consider removing religious jewelry and concealing religious tattoos,” said the US State Department’s Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC), co-chaired by the Diplomatic Security Service.
“Brunei has outlawed public celebrations of Christmas, purportedly under the belief that symbols including the crucifix, candles, Christmas trees, the exchange of Christmas greetings, and the singing of Christmas carols are all un-Islamic and may tempt Muslims to leave their faith,” the OSAC warned in a recent report issued for internal US private sector security purposes.
“LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersexed) sex acts are criminalized in Brunei under Civil Law and also under Brunei’s Sharia Penal Code, with possible punishments including fines and sentences of up to 10 years in prison,” OSAC said.