By Yuan Yanan
Considered a major Belt and Road country, Brunei has been attracting considerable Chinese investment and business operation alongside expanding economic, trade and people-to-people exchanges. During Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Brunei in November 2019, China-Brunei relationship was upgraded to strategic cooperative partnership, heralding dawn of a new day for traditional China- Brunei friendship.
How should the current China-Brunei relationship be defined? Which sectors have the greatest potential for bilateral cooperation? Seeking answers, this reporter from China Report ASEAN joined the ASEANChina Centre reporting group on a trip to Brunei, where I interviewed H.E. Ms. Yu Hong, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the People’s Republic of China to Negara Brunei Darussalam.
China Report ASEAN: How do you define the current China- Brunei relationship?
Yu Hong: China and Brunei enjoy a long history of friendly exchange and a good relationship that dates back to as early as the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 24). The Tomb of the King of Boni, one of only two tombs of foreign rulers found in China, is a pristine example of the traditional friendship between China and Brunei.
Since the establishment of modern diplomatic relations between China and Brunei in 1991, the bilateral relationship has been developing fast. High-level exchange and cooperation in various fields including economics, culture, education and health are expanding, and understanding and friendship between the two peoples are deepening. Chinese President Xi Jinping made a state visit to Brunei in 2018, during which the leaders of the two countries agreed to upgrade the China-Brunei relationship to strategic cooperative partnership.
In April 2019, Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei attended the second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing upon invitation from President Xi Jinping. The strong bilateral relations are particularly evidenced by three major projects which are progressing well this year: Hengyi Brunei PMB Petrochemical Project, a major BRI cooperative arrangement that is complete and in service, direct flights between Beijing and Brunei’s capital Bandar Seri Begawan that were introduced this October and the Guangxi-Brunei Economic Corridor. Other projects are also making steady progress.
The people-to-people exchange between the two countries has become increasingly close. More and more Bruneian students are choosing China for education while the number of Chinese travelers to Brunei also keeps growing. An estimated total of 62,000 Chinese tourists visited Brunei in 2018, making China the largest source of tourists to the Southeast Asian nation. We have strong reason to believe that our tightening ties in economics, trade and peoples are creating even brighter prospects for the China-Brunei relationship.
China Report ASEAN: Which sectors in each country are most ideal to help align the BRI with Brunei’s Wawasan 2035?
Yu Hong: The development strategies of China and Brunei are highly compatible. Seeking sustainable economic development, in 2008 the Bruneian Government introduced the medium and long-term development plan Wawasan 2035 and soon rolled out a series of corresponding development strategies. The plan aims to attract foreign capital to develop non-petroleum sectors, enhance infrastructure and support SMEs to create a favorable environment for businesses, energize the market and ultimately boost the economy through diverse driving forces. Such efforts have become even more determined since 2013 when Brunei’s economy was severely affected by plunging international oil prices.
Conversely, China’s Belt and Road Initiative aims to promote regional economic integration by encouraging Chinese companies to engage in foreign investment, enhance production capacity and financial cooperation, and facilitate infrastructure connectivity. The strategies of China and Brunei are so compatible that they create enormous potential for bilateral cooperation.
An important member of ASEAN, Brunei has been actively engaging in negotiating international affairs through various meetings and conferences including the ASEAN Summit, ASEAN-China Summit and ASEAN Plus Three Summit. China’s proposal to build the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road with ASEAN countries has received great support from Brunei. In October 2014, Brunei and other 21 first Prospective Founding Members agreed to establish the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. In May 2017, the two governments signed an MOU on jointly promoting the Belt and Road Initiative. In November 2018, President Xi Jinping visited Brunei and the two heads of state witnessed signing of a cooperation plan on jointly promoting the Belt and Road Initiative as well as other bilateral cooperation documents.
Brunei is located at the center of the Brunei Darussalam- Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines East ASEAN Growth Area (BIMPEAGA) and the only nation as a whole to be involved in the area’s cooperation. Brunei is ready to play a proactive role in developing the BIMP-EAGA and grow into a regional hub.
In recent years, many Chinese companies have launched businesses in Brunei, enhancing the nation’s drive for economic diversification. An important driver of China- Brunei cooperation, the Hengyi Brunei PMB Petrochemical Project is already producing economic and social benefits. To promote the Guangxi- Brunei Economic Corridor, Chinese companies have been engaging with Bruneian partners on port operation, marine-product farming and spice processing while new projects undergo consultation. China is ready to enhance cooperation with Brunei in sectors of agriculture, halal food and e-commerce. We are working to make the Guangxi- Brunei Economic Corridor a demonstration project along the New International Land-Sea Trade Corridor and an excellent cooperation example in BIMP-EAGA.
China Report ASEAN: People-to-people exchange between China and Brunei has gained considerable momentum in recent years. How can both sides consolidate this trend?
Yu Hong: People-to-people friendship is key to good stateto- state relations. China and Brunei enjoy a good historical background of exchange and both seize crucial opportunities to enhance communication. In recent years, the two countries have engaged in wider exchange in sectors including education, culture and health, which has maintained the momentum of bilateral cooperation.
Nanjing, capital of eastern China’s Jiangsu Province, is the only city to have established a sister city relationship with Bandar Seri Begawan. In September 2019, Her Royal Highness Princess Hajah Masna, Ambassador-at-Large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, visited Nanjing to attend the opening ceremony of the History Exhibition Hall of the King of Boni. Conversely, Nanjing has been sending contestants to participate in the Brunei Darussalam Regatta for six consecutive years.
According to consensus reached by President Xi Jinping and Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah, 2020 is designated the China-Brunei Year of Tourism. Authorities on both sides are now working together to plan a launch ceremony in January 2020 and arrange activities. We are confident that various activities to mark the occasion will further people-to-people exchange. We encourage more Bruneians to visit China and welcome the Chinese to come to Brunei and feel for themselves the Abode of Peace.