For almost four years, Craig Allen has had to navigate some serious challenges to the bilateral relationship — the US withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership, the protracted Bruneian recession, and the election of a divisive and highly controversial American president. 

Trying to bolster the image of America in the eyes of rest of world is an unenviable task these days. But the envoy, who has spent 27 years working in east Asia, has won many friends in Brunei through his engagement with youth and environmental issues, championed through an Obama-era project called the Young Southeast Asia Leaders Initiative

We sat down with Ambassador Allen last week to talk about his tenure in Brunei Darussalam, the future of the bilateral relationship, and whether he’s going to miss that #notcrispy rendang

Ambassador, you’ve been here for almost four years now, you were appointed by President Obama for your trade expertise when the TPP was still being negotiated by Brunei, the United States and 10 other countries. How would you characterise the way the bilateral relationship has evolved during your posting?

Allen: There’s continuity and discontinuity.

On the continuity side, the importance of military and security element of the relationship has remained. We have been able to upgrade our collaboration with the Bruneian military, be it training or working on equipment or sharing information.

On the discontinuity side, I had spent a lot of time working on the TPP and after the election the administration decided to withdraw from that agreement. I think it led to some discomfort in the Bruneian government, and I certainly understand that. But the overall economic and trade and investment relationship remains strong despite the lack of formal agreement.

US Navy aircraft carrier, the USS John C Stennis, patrols waters off the Brunei coast in the South China Sea in May 2016. Photo: US Navy

Within the government of Brunei there has been some dramatic changes with the cabinet reshuffle, but I think the overall feeling is a great deal of continuity despite the change in personnel.

On the US side, it’s a little bit different because of our election cycle, and with a president with a very different style and a unique and energetic approach to the world. But I think we’ve managed that transition very well.

His Majesty has had great relationships with all three of the most recent presidents and I’m sure that will continue into the future.

The last four years in Brunei has been difficult economically with the sharp decline in the price of oil, and all the implications of that, in what remains an oil and gas dependent economy. I think the government has managed those stresses extremely well by cutting expenses and continuing major infrastructure development projects, facilitating global trade agreements and welcoming investment.

But it hasn’t been an easy time to introduce American companies to do trade or invest outside of oil and gas because the economy has been so slow. Most companies will want to begin trade relations in a rapidly growing economy, a stronger economy.

I’m very confident about 2018 and bullish about 2019 and 2020 for the Brunei and American economy. Now’s a good time to look at potential trade expansion and investment as both economies are fully recovering.

Craig Allen (C) poses for a group photo with Bruneian youth participating in a YSEALI programme. Photo: Facebook/US Embassy

When the US announced it would be withdrawing from the TPP, how did that affect the tenor of the relationship between Brunei and the United States? Especially since the Obama administration had invested so much in building Brunei’s capacity to meet the high standard of the agreement.

Allen: I found the Bruneian government response to be incredibly gracious. The Bruneian government realises that the relationship is much bigger than the trade agreement, much older — we have a 170 years of treaty relations between the United States and Brunei.

Brunei, wisely, continued with the TPP-11 and I’m hopeful that this will come into force in the near future and will be very positive impact on Brunei. I’m hoping this will lead to an overall new regional dynamism in the regional economy.

Without economic growth, young people in particular are lacking the economic growth that they need to advance their careers.

Q: On a personal level, how did the withdrawal affect you? You’ve been championing liberalised trade regimes for more than three decades.  

Allen: We are part of a democratic system and the executive branch has the right and authority to change government policy. And the American people are far wiser than I on what is good for the United States. So I salute the leader and follow orders with pride.

When you move back to Washington DC, you’ll be leaving the foreign service to join the private sector as president of the US-China Business Council, trying to  rebuild trust between the world’s two largest economies. After 33 years in the US government, why did you decide to leave? 

Allen: I am 60 years old and I have an opportunity for another part of my career and if I didn’t do it now, then I don’t know when I would have done it.

US-China relations are terribly important, not only bilaterally but globally, and it’s an area I’ve worked on for many years, and I want to contribute to my country and to the globe to make sure their relationship is more sound.

We do have a large trade deficit with China which is not sustainable. When China joined the WTO in 2001, the question was asked at that time — can the WTO survive China? The jury on that is still out, but there’s plenty of room for China to improve its WTO implementation particular on subsidies, technology transfer, intellectual property rights and many other areas.

While this is kind of a different role for me, I’m going back to the future in a way because these are issues I’ve worked on my whole career.

I have a healthy respect for China and I want China to be prosperous and successful. And for them to break through the middle income trap, it really behooves them to follow WTO standards more closely, to treat trading partners better. To look at ‘Belt and Road’ programmes to ensure they’re really for the good of the countries they’re supporting. Not overload them with debt.

So I’m excited to work on the larger issues and I want to make a contribution to the bilateral relationship.

HM the Sultan (R) holds a farewell audience with outgoing US ambassador Craig Allen (3L) in July 2018. Photo: Infofoto

Since the election of Donald Trump, has your job become more difficult in any way? A lot of the president’s statements and policies — from immigration to his attitude towards Muslims — have been highly controversial and roundly condemned across the world. How has that affected how you do your job?

Allen: It really has not had that much of an effect. I am a representative of the president, I’m very proud to represent President Trump. The relationship that we have with Brunei is very secure and stable. While it is clear that US withdrawal from TPP was not helpful to the bilateral relationship, the Bruneian government was able to see that in a wise and mature manner — that is to keep on going with the agreement. And to maintain very positive relations with the United States despite the somewhat jarring withdrawal from an agreement we spent many, many years working on.

Do you think President Trump’s comments and attitude towards the Muslim world, as well as towards Muslims in America, has alienated and damaged relations with Muslim countries?

Allen: I think you would probably have a better view of that than I do. I would note that the president’s outreach to the Muslim world has been very active and His Majesty and the president met in Riyadh shortly after the inauguration… We’re working closely with our Muslim allies and friends around the world.

The travel restrictions which the president recently put into place with the approval of the Supreme Court did include a number of Muslim countries, but it also included a number of non-Muslim countries, so I don’t think it is correctly interpreted in a religious context at all.

My perception is that we continue to work with our Muslim friends and allies in a constructive and positive manner. From a Muslim point of view, others might [have] differing [view points].

But in your dealings with Bruneians, or in the course of your diplomatic work, do you feel there is a greater apprehension regarding the US policy towards the Muslim world?

Allen: Not at all. I have not felt that at all.

Moving away from politics, what have been some of the most memorable moments during your time here in Brunei?

Allen: I so enjoyed the Golden Jubilee and every element of that. The thing I found so amazing was the love of the people for His Majesty. Bruneians are not cynical, Bruneians are very sincere and very proud as a nation. Nowhere was that ever better reflected than in the enthusiasm surrounding the Golden Jubilee.

I was at the palace and then watched the rest on tv. And the crown prince’s speech for His Majesty — that was a very moving moment for me to see a son honour his father with such a gracious speech.

His Majesty waves to well- wishers during the procession as part of the Golden Jubilee celebrations in Bandar Seri Begawan on Oct 5, 2017. Photo: Rudolf Portillo

Another thing that was fun for me was that I learned how to scuba dive. One of the highlights was diving on the USS Salute which sank during the liberation of Brunei on June 6, 1945. [The Americans] were clearing mines in preparation of the liberation which happened the next day. We lost nine men on that ship. The USS Salute is the most beautiful graveyard in the world in terms of it’s just covered in beautiful coral, flowers and small fish — it’s the most beautiful thing in the [Brunei] Bay. It’s such a beautiful symbol of the bilateral relationship.

Did you have any preconceived notions about Brunei before you came here, and did they change?

Allen: I did, and they were all wrong. I had been here twice before for ASEAN and APEC [summits]. I didn’t realise Brunei would be so diverse — it is a very diverse place. So many ethnicities, cultures, foods and languages mixing in such a delightful manner — it’s Brunei’s strength. I didn’t know Malay culture at all, and now I have enormous respect.

Another thing that I really didn’t understand is monarchy — I had very simplistic views on this. I’ve come to realise that Brunei’s monarchy is one of the oldest and most successful monarchies in the world, and one of the few where the monarch has direct role in governing.

Craig Allen weaves local handicrafts in Kampong Ayer. Photo: Facebook/US Embassy

And to be honest, I had no idea about Islam before coming to Brunei. It never would have crossed my mind to read the Quran or study Islam. But in coming Brunei, I’ve had the privilege of going to many ceremonies and to be a part of many rituals and get to know so many Muslims — and what an honour and privilege that has been for me, because I had a a lot to learn.

When I read the Quran, I read the same stories in the Bible and it makes me realise that we share a common foundation and that’s something we can do more to study and celebrate.

What do you think is the biggest misunderstanding that outsiders have about Brunei?

Allen: There’s a lot. People don’t understand Brunei well at all. There continue to be stories about some of the excesses of the past, that are 25 years old. Many times they are brought up as if they are happening today. That’s a problem.

Brunei is an oil power. But what Brunei is not known for is the ecological diversity of both the jungle, peat swamps and the sea — that’s a real pity. That should really be more treasured. One thing I regret is that we haven’t had more [US-Brunei] academic exchanges on these ecological issues — I’d like to have 10 times the level we see now.

Those are some of the things I would pass on to my successor. We have a good foundation — a great foundation — we need to continue to build on it for the good of both peoples.

Portions of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity.