As the UK Prime Minister’s Trade Envoy to Brunei Darussalam, my mission is to deepen the UK-Brunei economic and commercial relationship. Ordinarily, that means identifying ways to boost our two-way trade and investment, supporting job creation.
Against the backdrop of a global pandemic, though, my focus is helping our countries recover from the economic impact of the virus and build back stronger. This includes exploring how to bolster supply chain resilience and deliver clean, inclusive and resilient growth.
Earlier this week, I visited Brunei, very much the abode of peace, with almost an entire year having gone by without a single case of community transmission of COVID-19. I did so virtually, undertaking a packed programme from a chilly Wyre Forest, my home in the UK.
Highlights of my virtual visit included discussing the UK-Brunei and UK-ASEAN relationships with Dato Dr Manaf, Deputy Minister of Finance and Economy II.
Central to these discussions were the UK’s intention to accede to the CPTPP trade agreement, joining Brunei and the ten other signatories in the process. If the UK becomes a member, this landmark deal would cover more than 15 percent of global GDP.
At a Britain-Brunei Business Forum event, I heard about the priorities and concerns of the local business community. I also met with Brunei Shell Petroleum to learn about their sustainable initiatives, of particular interest as the UK gears up to host the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in November.
Alongside YB Dato Suhaimi, Minister of Development, and YB Yanty Rahman, Chair of the ASEAN Business Advisory Council, I delivered a keynote speech at a week-long course on sustainable infrastructure, organised by the UK for government and business leaders from across ASEAN.
That the Bruneian economy bucked the trend and grew in 2020 is testament to the government’s robust response to COVID-19.
The economy proved remarkably resilient, helped by an entrepreneurial streak that brought about all manner of start-ups. The UK economy has experienced its largest economic shock in over 300 years, with output dropping by almost 10 percent in 2020 and borrowing reaching its highest level outside of wartime.
But there is hope.
Our National Health Service has had extraordinary success. Over half of the UK’s adult population has received its first dose of the vaccine. Meanwhile, our economic response has been recognised by the International Monetary Fund as one of the most comprehensive and generous in the world.
As a result, the UK’s Office for Budget Responsibility is forecasting a swifter and more sustained recovery than previously projected – with GDP expected to reach its pre-COVID-19 level by mid-2022, six months earlier than expected.
I must also acknowledge the University of Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccination, a feat of human ingenuity which is already proving integral to global recovery. Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccinations are already taking place in some of the world’s poorest countries, funded by COVAX, the COVID-19 Global Vaccines Access facility, to which the UK has pledged £548 million. We look forward to the recently announced vaccine programme getting underway in Brunei.
Bruneian creativity has helped keep the economy on the right track in this time of global crisis. This is exactly the spirit needed to face the challenge of economic diversification head on.
The UK is committed to supporting Brunei in this and in its energy transition, and we welcome the recently published Economic Blueprint.
Over the last four days, I have built up a picture of the ways in which the UK can collaborate with Brunei on a sustainable and more resilient future. This includes boosting our digital links as well as enhancing our skills and education partnerships. The UK recently announced a new international educational mobility scheme, named after Alan Turing, the world-renowned British mathematician, to enable British students to embark on education exchanges around the world. This is an important step towards strengthening UK-Brunei education and vocational training links, preparing the future workforce against the backdrop of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
The year 2021 is significant for Brunei as it chairs ASEAN through what is an undeniably challenging period. It is a particular pleasure that the Bruneian chairmanship takes place in the year His Majesty turns seventy-five.
The UK has deep and enduring links with ASEAN. Our engagement with ASEAN’s member states spans centuries. The royal and people-to-people links we enjoy today reflect that rich history and our shared efforts to create opportunity, overcome challenges and thrive together.
We have worked closely with ASEAN since it was established in 1967. This collaboration underpins a bilateral trade relationship worth over £36 billion.
It is with this already deep relationship in mind that the UK has applied to become a dialogue partner of ASEAN. We are proposing an even more ambitious partnership that spans ASEAN’s three communities, reflects its priorities, and deepens our cooperation with all ten member states.
“We Care, We Prepare, We Prosper” – the theme of Brunei’s chairmanship, is a message that resonates with the UK. We are committed to supporting Brunei’s chairmanship priorities, including the priority economic deliverables, rooted in recovery, digitalisation, and sustainability.
This includes supporting ASEAN’s economic and health responses to COVID-19 by refocusing £50 million, including committing £1 million to the COVID-19 ASEAN Response Fund, and deepening our digital ties with ASEAN.
I am delighted that Brunei has made sustainability a cornerstone of its ASEAN chairmanship. The year 2020 saw record global temperatures. We saw fires rage across the world. We saw storms intensify. In short, the climate crisis is closing in.
Southeast Asia is a region particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Through our COP26 presidency, the UK is committed to working with all countries and non-state actors to inspire action to tackle climate change.
We recently launched the Race to Zero Campaign, with the aim of building the largest ever alliance of businesses and non-state actors committed to reaching net zero by 2050. Over 1,000 businesses have already signed up, along with many cities, regions and universities. I hope that Bruneian names will join the ranks over the coming months. I encourage those of you interested in participating in the Race to Zero to make contact with the British High Commission.
I am incredibly proud to have been appointed by the prime minister to serve as trade envoy to Brunei Darussalam. Our bilateral relationship is historic, strong, and offers tremendous scope to do more together. My virtual visit was illuminating and I would like to thank all those involved for the warm reception. I look forward to visiting in the not too distant future.
Mark Garnier is a Conservative Party politician and the UK’s trade envoy to Brunei. He has been a member of parliament since 2010.