BROAD PROSPECTS FOR CHINA-BRUNEI COOPERATION|China-Brunei

Interview with Chinese Ambassador to Brunei Yang Jian

By Wang Fengjuan

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China Report ASEAN: On the 27th anniversary of the establishment of modern diplomatic ties between China and Brunei, what do you think about relations between the two countries?

Yang Jian: The diplomatic relations between China and Brunei have developed smoothly since establishment in 1991. Following the principles of mutual respect, equality and mutually beneficial cooperation, bilateral cooperation in various fields has been gradually strengthened. In April 2013, His Majesty Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei paid a state visit to China, during which time the two heads of state upgraded their relations to a strategic cooperative partnership. In 2017, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah made another successful visit to China. The two heads of state reached an important consensus on further developing bilateral relations in the new era. More and more exchanges and cooperation in various fields between the two countries have brought benefits to both sides.

Exchanges between China and Brunei date back a long time. According to academic research, exchanges between the two countries began in the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 24). Brunei is known in ancient Chinese books as Boni. Records indicate extensive trade between the two countries during the Song Dynasty (960-1127). During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), bilateral exchanges boomed. The fleet of Zheng He (Cheng Ho), a famous Chinese navigator, stopped in Brunei during expeditions to the Western Seas.

In August 1408 (the sixth year of the Yongle reign), the King of Boni (Sultan Abdul Majid Hasan, who ascended the throne in 1402) arrived in China with an entourage of 150 for a friendly visit. He was very warmly welcomed in China. Unfortunately, the king fell ill and died in Nanjing. In his will, he expressed a desire to be buried in China. Emperor Yongle buried him with an imperial ceremony. Discovered in 1958, the king’s tomb is now a cultural heritage site under full state protection. The Tomb of the King of Boni is strong evidence of longtime friendship between the two countries.

In recent years, exchanges and cooperation between China and Brunei have been constantly expanding. China is now the largest source of foreign tourists to Brunei. An increasing number of Bruneian students study in China. The two countries have cooperated in various fields including economics and trade, culture, tourism and healthcare. The two countries have continuously enhanced mutual understanding.

China Report ASEAN: In recent years, Brunei introduced the Brunei Vision 2035 strategy. How will China and Brunei cooperate within the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)?

Yang Jian: The BRI is an initiative for open and inclusive development which calls for extensive consultation, joint contribution and shared benefits. Its prime objective is mutual benefit. The Brunei government has attached great importance to the initiative. Alongside other ASEAN member states, Brunei was a founding member of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).

During his 2017 visit to China, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah emphasized his support for the Chinese initiative. In May 2017, two ministers of the Brunei government attended the Belt and Road Forum on International Cooperation in Beijing.

Brunei’s pillar industry has been oil and gas. In recent years, the country has begun promoting more diversified development of its economy under the guidance of Brunei Vision 2035. The BRI will lead more Chinese companies to invest in Brunei and contribute to the realization of the Bruneian vision. In December 2016, Bank of China Hong Kong (BOCHK) opened a branch in Brunei to become the first Chinese bank operating in the country, which is conducive for economic and trade cooperation between China and Brunei.

Geographically, Brunei is actually at the center of the ASEAN region. It takes only a couple hours to fly from here to Singapore, Jakarta, Manila and other major ASEAN destinations. Archeological discoveries have found that as early as the 15th and 16th centuries, Brunei was already the trade center of the region. Brunei has a favorable investment environment. Meanwhile, it is located at the center of the East ASEAN Growth Area (BIMP-EAGA). This area is relatively weak in infrastructure but rich in natural resources with great potential for development.

China Report ASEAN: What is your assessment of the potential for economic and trade cooperation between the two countries?

Yang Jian: China’s largest investment project in Brunei is the Hengyi petrochemical project located at Pulau Muara Besa (PMB). It is a joint venture between China and Brunei with a total investment of US$34.45 billion. The first phase is expected to begin production in 2019. The project will bring about noticeable economic and social benefits.

Brunei is an Islamic country with very high standards for halal food production. Halal food products produced by Bruneian brands are widely popular in other Islamic countries. Within the framework of BruneiGuangxi Economic Corridor (BGEC), Chinese companies in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region are cooperating with their Bruneian partners to build spices production, processing and trading bases in Guangxi and Brunei. Their products will be sold to other Islamic countries as well as European and American markets.

The Brunei government has promulgated favorable policies for foreign direct investment (FDI). There are plentiful opportunities for China-Brunei economic and trade cooperation. We have established bilateral cooperation mechanisms including diplomatic consultation, economic and trade consultation, and BGEC, as well as multilateral platforms of China-ASEAN cooperation such as the China-ASEAN Expo (CAEXPO). We should make full use of every available mechanism and platform to promote comprehensive cooperation.

During my tenure here in Brunei, I have seen more and more Chinese companies show interest in strengthening their economic and trade cooperation with their Bruneian partners. Brunei is currently promoting economic diversification, which has motivated both sides to cooperate. The potential of our bilateral cooperation lies far beyond Brunei. In future, the two sides could expand cooperation in BIMP-EAGA, fintech, e-commerce and other areas.

China Report ASEAN: As part of BIMP-EAGA, Brunei has advantages in promoting diversified economic development. In what areas can China strengthen its cooperation with Brunei?

Yang Jian: Brunei has a very good geographical location at the center of BIMP-EAGA. It is the only country that has fully participated in this mechanism. Brunei is looking forward to playing a greater role in the area by making itself a regional hub. BIMP-EAGA covers an area of 1.56 million square kilometers and hosts a population of 55 million amid abundant natural resources. I see broad prospects for cooperation between China and BIMP-EAGA, which will help deepen China-ASEAN cooperation as a whole and expand the cooperation space of the Belt and Road. Chinese companies from different provinces will increase their investment in this area for mutual benefits.

We need to develop some new ideas on promoting cooperation between China and BIMPEAGA, including Brunei. We need not follow the traditional model of industrialization that emerged in other areas, but to create new stimulus for growth in infrastructure, ecological agriculture, ecotourism and healthcare industry to achieve green, high-quality and sustainable development.

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