Indian vice President visited Brunei recently. The visit is significant because it is first high-level visit to the tiny, oil-rich sultanate from India since the establishment of diplomatic ties in 1984.
Why India should engage with Brunei more extensively?
• As India strives to make its Act East Policy a comprehensive politico-diplomatic and economic success, Brunei gains more salience. 4 major reasons may be listed in that regard.
• First, as a member of ASEAN, Brunei is integral to India's Act East. For years, Brunei has been supportive of India's participation in ASEAN-led initiatives. While other countries have also been supportive of India's active presence in the Southeast Asian region, since 1990s Brunei has been encouraging India's active involvement in the region. Brunei also supported India's candidature for full dialogue partnership at ASEAN. The ASEAN-India FTA and the RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) are likely to provide new vistas of cooperation between India and Brunei, especially in terms of economic cooperation and integration in the regional supply chains.
• Second, India's cultural relationship with Brunei is deeply rooted. India's engagement with Brunei through the presence of the Indian Diaspora has also been significant. The discovery of oil in Brunei in the 1920s attracted several Indians who, for commercial purposes, began to migrate to Brunei. There are as many as 10,000 Indians in Brunei and Indians constitute approximately 3% of Brunei's total population. A majority of the Indians in Brunei are either Tamil or Malayali. Due to the sizeable presence of Indians in Brunei, there is an urgent need to connect with Brunei and also to reconnect with the Indian Diaspora.. For this purpose, greater emphasis should be put on strengthening people-to-people contacts between 2 countries
• Third, Brunei overtly supports India's candidature for permanent membership in the United Nations Security Council. In addition, in 2011-2012, Brunei also lobbied for a non-permanent seat on the UNSC for India.
• Fourth, India's energy needs have been swiftly growing in recent times. Brunei is an important source of crude oil for India. In 2014-15, bilateral trade stood at US$ 882.82 million, out of which US$ 840.85 million accounted for India's imports from Brunei and US$ 41.97 million for India's exports to Brunei.
• Fifthly as the Indian economy grows further, its energy demands will grow by leaps and bounds, making it difficult to satiate the demands of domestic industries and households. Brunei can be a great support in dealing with that situation.
Key agreements during the visit:
• India and Brunei have signed three Memoranda of Understanding (MoU) to cooperate in the fields of defence, health and youth affairs & sports.
• 3 MOU's are
i) MoU in Health Cooperation: Its objective is to establish cooperation in the field of health between the 2 countries by means of pooling technical, scientific, and financial and human resources and pharmaceutical regulatory practices. It also seeks to upgrade the health care, research and medical education.
ii) MoU on Defense Cooperation: Its purpose is to enhance and expand the scope of Defence Cooperation between the 2 countries in various fields.
iii) MoU on Cooperation in Youth and Sports Affairs: It seeks to provide a framework for exchanges of sports teams and sports persons. It also seeks to facilitate the exchange of expertise in coaching, Sports Management and Administration, Sports talent identification and exchange of information in the field of youth Affairs.
The Act East should not be confined just to the politico-diplomatic and Socio-cultural field but it should achieve greater linkages, namely:
• Building robust infrastructural connectivity;
• Strengthening Diaspora linkages;
• Realizing regional economic integration through integrating with the regional supply chain mechanism
• Establishing energy cooperation as a strong pillar of the Act East Policy.
Engaging Brunei comprehensively will pave the way in making these objectives a reality, especially in the context of India's energy diplomacy in the region.
In that context, it is imperative that bilateral exchanges and top-level meetings between the two countries should be increased and the two countries must institutionalize mechanisms to make that an annual feature.
The time has come for India to sense the potential of Brunei in meeting the energy demands of the Indian economy. Brunei's active role in the ASEAN mechanism, cultural commonalities between the 2 countries and convergence of strategic and economic interests and objectives on regional and global issues make Brunei more significant than ever for India's Eastward engagement.