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Philippine-Brunei: ties that bind

Philippines-Brunei Relations

Little has been written about President Rodrigo Duterte’s recent trip to Brunei. It’s not as glamorous, perhaps, as the Jakarta or the Hanoi visits, and nothing like the scale of the 400-plus-strong mission now winding down in Beijing. But relations between the Philippines and Brunei form a significant part of the jigsaw that is the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (Asean) of which they are both members.

In many ways these two countries couldn’t be more different as this snapshot shows. The Philippines: land area, 298,170 sq. km; population 102 million; religion, 80.9% Roman Catholic; GDP per capita (PPP), US$7,300; sector contribution to GDP, agriculture 1.1%, industry 60.2%, services 38.7%. Brunei: land area, 5,265 sq. km; population 430,632; religion, 78.8% Muslim; GDP per capita (PPP), US$79,700 (2015 figure); sector contribution to GDP, agriculture 10.3%, industry 30.8%, services 59.0%.

To all intents and purposes, in terms of size, cultures and economies, they are chalk and cheese. But Brunei’s capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, is the closest of any Asean capital to Manila – 1,264 kilometres – and although diplomatic relations between the two states only span 32 years, cultural and political ties go back more than half a millennium. And so it’s the things these two nations have in common which Duterte and Brunei’s leader, Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah, will seek to build on. Right now those include: illegal narcotics; Islamic terrorism; Islamic links; sea-territory disputes, and energy exploration. Let’s take a closer look.

Illegal narcotics. This trade is as much an anathema to the Sultan as it is to the president. As a strict Islamic state, Brunei comes down hard on those who contravene its drugs and alcohol laws. In terms of alcohol, this is virtually a dry country. The sale of alcohol, including by hotels, is strictly prohibited. Meanwhile, under the country’s Shariah criminal code, penalties for the possession, use or trafficking of illegal drugs is severe and include heavy fines, long prison terms and execution.

In Brunei, the death penalty is mandatory for the following offences: possession of more than 15 grams of heroin, ecstasy, or morphine derivatives; cocaine, more than 30gms; cannabis, more than 500gms; methamphetamine – such as the Philippine addicts’ drug of choice, shabu – more than 50gms; opium, more than 1.2 kilograms. Possession of lesser amounts can result in a minimum 20-year jail term and caning.

It wasn’t any surprise, then, that Bolkiah, like fellow Asean members Thailand and Indonesia, has expressed his backing for Duterte’s war on drugs.

Islamic terrorism. Although Bolkiah has transformed Brunei from a semi-secular, Western-modeled state to one based on Shariah, he is no apologist for extreme forms of the faith that exploit it for political power. On 2 October, marking the start of the new 1438 Hijrah year, he said Bruneians have neither time nor desire to become involved with any “undesirable elements” wherever they are.

This was a direct signal to jihadist groups that Brunei would continue to pursue peace under a “transparent and fair leadership” based on the country’s laws and what it views as the true Islamic teachings. In terms of Philippine domestic policy, vis-à-vis Muslim Mindanao, these are encouraging sentiments and make Brunei a natural ally in brokering any future peaceful resolution to the bitter and bloody dispute that has been raging on the large southern Philippine island for the best part of half a century.

As part of the Malaysian-led International Monitoring Team, Brunei has been sending peacekeepers to protect and monitor the ceasefire agreement between the Philippine Government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Force since 2004 and last month reiterated its commitment to that initiative. Brunei has been a strong and enduring supporter of peace efforts in this region.

Islamic links. Islam forms a strong bond between these two nations with a history that goes back to the 15th century. Today, the Philippines Muslim population is anywhere between 5.75 million (based on the 2015 census) and 11.3 million (based on the National Commission of Filipino Muslims) compared to 333,068 in Brunei. There are also presently some 23,000 Filipino overseas foreign workers in Brunei many of which practice the Islamic faith.

Islamic tourism from the southern Philippines is an attractive prospect for Brunei; similarly, Brunei investment in the Philippines’ halal industry is something Duterte would like to encourage. Both issues have been discussed and are being explored.

Sea-territory disputes. This is something else which these two countries share. And their common disputant is China – in both cases over areas of the Spratley Islands (irrespective of the Philippines other dispute with the Mainland over Scarborough Shoal), though Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam also claim parts of this archipelago.

But what Brunei and the Philippines share in this context under Duterte and Bolkiah is what Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, describes as the “dual-track approach” to resolving these issues. In other words, territorial disputes in the South China Sea should be resolved bilaterally – without the intervention of other parties. This approach will help to secure their participation in the 21st century Maritime Silk Road – a massive trade route from Chinese waters to the Mediterranean.

Energy cooperation. Brunei is an oil state. It’s been pumping large barrelages of oil from the ocean floor around its waters since the early 1970s, though oil exploration there dates back to the early 1900s. Crude oil and natural gas account for 90% of the country’s GDP, making Brunei the fourth largest oil-producing nation in Southeast Asia with the 39th largest proven oil reserves in the world. By contrast, the Philippines which is believed to have very large oil and natural gas resources in its water territory is globally ranked 66th in terms of proven oil reserves with 138.5 million barrels. Crude oil production is around 20,000 barrels per day; natural-gas production is at 3.47 billion cubic metres. All this falls far short of the Philippines energy requirements.

Bolkiah has said that commercial partnerships between the two states, to bring greater power and energy to the Philippines, should be explored. “There remains much potential to be tapped in our economic cooperation,” he said. “This includes strengthening our work in the energy sector”.

In the past, the two countries shared common enemies – Spain in the later 16th century; Japan during WWII. Today, their two leaders also share common enemies – the international media, Hollywood and most Western governments and their affiliated NGOs. And that’s also not surprising; for both men, through their singleness of purpose, have chosen to pursue independent foreign policies and implement radical changes to their domestic policies. This makes Bolkiah and Duterte fellow travelers on a journey to do right by their people; it makes them natural allies.

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