BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – China’s President Xi Jinping touched down for his first visit to the sultanate on Sunday evening, calling for both countries to “draw up a new blueprint for our relations in a new era.”

Fresh off the APEC summit in Papua New Guinea, where he took centre stage, the Chinese leader will hold talks with His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah on Monday, and will be hosted to a state luncheon at the palace, Istana Nurul Iman.

The leaders are expected to issue a joint statement and witness the signing of several agreements, including a cooperation plan on the Belt and Road Initiative.

“We need to enhance political mutual trust. To take our relations to new heights, our two sides need to plan the development of China-Brunei relations from a long-term, strategic perspective,” Xi said in an op-ed published in local media over the weekend.

This the first visit of a Chinese president to Brunei  in 13 years. His Majesty the Sultan has made two state visits to China during his reign — in 2017 and 2013 — and 11 visits in total for various summits and meetings since the establishment of bilateral relations in 1991.

Some 86 Chinese journalists have come to Bandar Seri Begawan to cover Xi’s visit, with the Chinese government organising a dialogue last Thursday between some of China’s biggest news agencies and local Brunei media, encouraging them to give “comprehensive coverage” of the president’s visit.

A month-long exhibition celebrating Brunei-China ties also opened at the Royal Wharf Art Gallery, with exhibits exploring the history of the ancient Silk Road. More than 600 copies of a special “Brunei Issue” of the China-ASEAN Report were also being given away to the public for free.

MCYS Minister Dato Hj Aminuddin (4R), Vice Minister of the State Council Information Office in China, Guo Weimin (3R) and Chinese Ambassador to Brunei Yang Jian (2R) officiate the launch of the Splendid Chapters of Silk Road Cultures exhibition. Photo: Rafidah Hamit/The Scoop

Deepening political ties

Since the two countries launched the strategic cooperative relationship five years ago, the volume of political, cultural and economic exchange has deepened significantly.

Two-way trade hit US$1 billion in 2017, an increase of 36.5 percent from the previous year.

Two flagship projects, the Hengyi Brunei petrochemical plant and the Guangxi-Brunei Economic Corridor have brought in a significant amount of Chinese investment to Brunei. The former is the single largest FDI project in the country — worth US$15 billion — and is set to go into production in May 2019.

Several Chinese companies are also involved in major infrastructure projects in the sultanate, from the Temburong Bridge to the Ulu Tutong Dam.

“China-Brunei relationship has been as good as ever, setting a good example of relations between countries of different sizes based on equality and mutual benefit for common development,” Xi said in his op-ed.

Both countries also have overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea, with Beijing’s nine-dash line encroaching on Brunei’s exclusive economic zone. In 2013, the governments signed an agreement on maritime cooperation, calling for joint exploration and exploitation of oil and gas resources, with the caveat that any cooperation “shall not be interpreted as to prejudice the position of the respective countries in relation to maritime rights and interest”.

President Xi said he also wants to accelerate negotiations for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, and that the two nations can work together in “safeguarding multilateralism, the international trading system, and the legitimate rights and interests of developing countries.”

Visitor numbers have also been rising — in the first quarter of 2018, tourists from China topped arrivals into Brunei. In 2017, they accounted for 52,000 visitors, only second to Malaysia, but still a large chunk of Brunei’s humble tourist volume.