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Brunei - Foreign Relations

Above all, Brunei seeks a balanced and cautious approach in its foreign policy. As a small, but wealthy nation, Brunei is friendly but deliberate in bilateral and regional relations. Brunei is an ASEAN member and is a close adherent to the "consensus" decision making model within the ASEAN forum. The same can be said for Brunei's approach within other regional and international organizations. Brunei is a moderating voice with the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), reflecting His Majesty, the Sultan's views on Islam and its role in the political spectrum. The Sultan has close personal ties with leaders of many Arab Gulf countries. Brunei normally does not take a leadership role in regional or international organizations, preferring to "work within" the organizations.

Brunei joined the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on January 7, 1984 -- 1 week after resuming full independence -- and gives its ASEAN membership the highest priority in its foreign relations. The chairmanship of ASEAN will rotate to Brunei in 2013. Brunei joined the UN in September 1984. It also is a member of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum. Brunei hosted the APEC Economic Leaders' Meeting in November 2000 and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in July 2002.

The establishment of the ASEAN Political-Security Community, to be achieved by 2015, is seen as providing a comprehensive, professional and practical framework for future security cooperation. It also signals a renewed ASEAN resolve to actively pursue conflict prevention, conflict resolution and post-conflict peace building measures. The linchpin of the new arrangements is the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting (ADMM). The ADMM is supported by Senior Officers Meetings responsible for developing the practical initiatives to give effect to that cooperation. Studies have been undertaken of ASEAN military capacities to provide humanitarian assistance and disaster relief and of how to maximise cooperation with civil agencies in responding to complex, non-traditional challenges.

The Government of Brunei (GOB) appears to be viewing Mideast issues increasingly through the prism of a broader Sunni-Shia divide. Teheran's apparent drive to play more of a leadership role in the Muslim world was deeply worrying for Brunei. There is concern that an increasingly hostile divide between Sunnis and Shia in the Middle East could spill over into Southeast Asia and lead to instability there. Iranian influence was growing in the region. This was due to Teheran's sponsorship of study by young Southeast Asians in Qom and other Iranian religious centers, its backing for Iranian-trained Islamic teachers in Southeast Asia, and its appeal to young Muslims who admired the outspoken way Iran unabashedly championed the cause of Islam and "stood up" to the West. Sultan Hassanal's foreign policy has been typical for a small state preoccupied with its own survival, and colored by his cautious nature. He has done his best to dodge open conflict with more powerful neighbors, even when some Bruneians grumble that he should be more assertive when, for example, negotiating with Malaysia over competing territorial claims. He consistently opposes the use of force to solve international disputes and embraces "further negotiations" as his default position -- he opposed both the 1991 and 2003 wars with Iraq -- and is an ardent supporter of multilateral organizations in which small states have an equal seat at the table (Brunei conforms closely to ASEAN consensus positions, and the Sultan himself is the only APEC leader to have attended all 15 APEC Leaders Meetings). Sultan Hassanal views the maintenance of a balance among major powers as essential for regional stability, and seldom misses an opportunity to emphasize to USG interlocutors his desire to see the U.S. remain deeply engaged in Southeast Asia.

Brunei's foreign relations are also influenced by the Sultan's personal experiences. Its close ties with Singapore, which is allowed to operate its own military training area in the Bruneian jungle, derives in part from his father's close personal friendship with Lee Kuan Yew. His ardor for the UK, or at least its defense firms, was tempered by a contentious long-running dispute over fulfillment of a contract for BAE to construct three Offshore Patrol Vessels for the Bruneian Navy, signed in 1995 following strong pressure from the then-UK government. Under terms of a 2007 out-of-court settlement, Brunei would take possession of the ships and resell them at a huge loss. Although Sultan Hassanal's relations with the U.S. have been bolstered by his personal rapport with Presidents Clinton and Bush, he has been wary of too close dealings with the USG since being embarrassed by public revelations that a covert US$10 million contribution he made to the Nicaraguan Contras in 1986 at USG request went missing because an incorrect Swiss bank account number was provided for the funds transfer.

A sense of solidarity with the global community of Islam plays a growing role in Sultan Hassanal's foreign policy. As is the case in many Muslim majority countries, and despite vigorous US public diplomacy efforts to argue otherwise, there is a popular perception in Brunei that the U.S.-led Global War on Terror has morphed into a Global War on Islam. This sense of Islamic victimization led to increased sympathy for fellow Muslims living under dire circumstances, particularly in the Middle East, and reached right to the top. Sultan Hassanal took his own government by complete surprise while attending an August 2006 emergency OIC meeting when, apparently overcome by sympathy for what he perceived as innocent Muslim victims of Israel's incursion into Lebanon, he announced that Brunei would contribute significant forces to a peacekeeping force for southern Lebanon. Although that contribution did not materialize due to cold feet within the Sultan's government, similarly impetuous and emotional decisions in the future when it comes to issues related to global Islamic solidarity cannot be ruled out.

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