BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – As Brunei prepares to take on the ASEAN chair in January, Australia has said it welcomes further engagement between the two countries in support of shared security interests.

Australia’s Minister for Defence Linda Reynolds made her first visit to the sultanate on Wednesday, where she met with His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah and other key defence leaders.

In a statement issued at the end of her one-day visit, Reynolds said Australia will establish a resident defence adviser in Brunei at the end of the year, a role which was previously covered by an attaché based at their Singapore mission.

Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Hauser, currently based in Brunei as assistant defence adviser, has been promoted to the role.

“Brunei and Australia enjoy a strong and long-standing relationship, and share common interests in a secure, stable and open Indo-Pacific,” Reynolds said. “Australia welcomes further engagement with Brunei in support of these shared interests during Brunei’s year as ASEAN Chair in 2021.”

Australian defence minister Linda Reynolds presents HM the Sultan with a gift of RM Williams boots. Photo: Infofoto

During her brief stop, Reynolds also held a bilateral meeting with Second Minister of Defence Pehin Dato Hj Halbi Hj Mohd Yussof to discuss the two countries co-chairing the ASEAN Regional Forum Defence Officials Dialogue in 2021, as well as the ASEAN Defence Minister’s Meeting on Military Medicine.

In the afternoon she presented academic excellence awards to six high-performing graduates of the Royal Brunei Armed Force’s Command and Staff Course, who will be invited to Australia as part of a week-long professional exchange.

Her visit was capped off with a wreath-laying ceremony at the Brunei-Australia Memorial at Muara Beach to mark the 75th anniversary of Operation OBOE VI.

The WWII memorial marks the landing site of the Australian ninth division, which led the Allied Forces’ campaign to liberate North Borneo from Japanese occupation. Some 75,000 Australians participated in the Borneo campaign, with 110 losing their lives during the liberation of Brunei.

Brunei’s second defence minister Pehin Dato Hj Halbi (L) and Australia’s defence minister Linda Reynolds place a wreath on the Brunei-Australia Memorial to mark the 75th anniversary of the OBOE IV landings during WWII. Photo: Ain Bandial/The Scoop

Brunei and Australia have long-standing defence ties which date back to the OBOE campaigns. Both countries have inked several agreements since Brunei’s independence in 1984 to support bilateral military training and exercises.

This year alone, the two countries conducted the maritime Exercise Penguin, and a second exercise en route to Hawaii to take part in the US-led Rim of the Pacific exercise. A Royal Australian Navy submarine also made its first port visit to Brunei in March.

‘An open Indo-Pacific’

Reynolds was in Brunei as part of an East Asia swing with stops in Japan, Singapore and the Philippines, aiming to deepen engagement with regional partners who “share our vision of an open, inclusive and prosperous Indo-Pacific”.

In an op-ed published in The Australian newspaper ahead of her tour, the minister said the region is facing complex challenges that “don’t resemble the traditional notions of conflict”.

“They exist in what’s known as the grey zone. In this grey zone, influence becomes interference. Economic cooperation becomes coercion. And investment becomes entrapment,” she said in a thinly-veiled criticism of Chinese influence in the region.

In the article, the minister said Australia has a clear vision for the Indo-Pacific that is aligned with ASEAN’s outlook — a region “where sovereignty and the rights of all states, large and small, are respected… where the rule of law is upheld”.

She urged like-minded countries to work together to “strengthen collective security, sovereignty and resilience to coercion”.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Australian Defence Force has increased its deployment to the Indo-Pacific to include five naval vessels, a range of aircraft and about 1,500 military personnel.