BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – The South China Sea dispute has been identified as one of five major security challenges facing the Brunei government in its latest Defence White Paper.

Spelling out potential security threats in the White Paper for the next 15 years, the government is anticipating growing tensions in the South China Sea as major powers seek to dominate and influence the region.

The Defence White Paper 2021, which was released on May 31, said the increasing risk of miscalculation may cause tensions to worsen giving way to regional instability.

“Militarisation of maritime features will continue to be of grave concern as the reach of nations expand well beyond their own mainland shorelines and recognised exclusive economic zones,” the paper read.

“This risk of miscalculation… is potentially the most significant threat in the maritime domain.”

China has reportedly built several man-man islands with military facilities, accused by the United States of militarising the sea.

Several Western powers, including the US and UK, have since increased their naval presence in the Indo-Pacific, deploying ships to conduct maritime patrols in the disputed waters — a move which China sees as provocative.

The White Paper said the impact of major power dynamics in the region will be another main challenge to national security.

“As major and middle powers further compete in the future, smaller nations will find it increasingly difficult to adopt a friends-to-all approach, where they will need to choose [among the powers].

“This is likely to be a challenging balancing act and will require carefully considered and enduring defence diplomacy plans that are integrated with wider national security strategies.”

To ease mounting tensions, the White Paper said collective and individual actions from nations would be needed to beef up maritime security.

Brunei’s defence ministry recently announced it had purchased US-made drones to improve maritime surveillance to monitor potential security threats.

Brunei’s sultan is briefed on the military’s new unmanned drones during the RBAF’s 60th anniversary event on May 31, 2021. Boeing subsidiary Insitu was awarded a contract to supply the aircraft to Brunei. Photo: Infofoto

The sultanate is one of the several countries with territorial claims in South China Sea, home to major shipping lanes and believed to contain large deposits of oil.

China makes the largest claim, encompassing about 90 percent of the contested area based on its controversial “nine-dash line”.

Brunei maintains a “two-step approach” in addressing the dispute, saying that any overlapping claims should be dealt with bilaterally, while ASEAN should negotiate a Code of Conduct with China to promote a peaceful atmosphere in the sea.

“Efforts must be made to define accepted norms and behaviours in accordance with international law, namely the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea,” it said in the White Paper, adding that it will be necessary for countries to build more effective maritime security capabilities to ensure territorial integrity.

Slow progress has been made on the Code of Conduct in the past two decades, although ASEAN and China finally agreed to a framework in 2017. The first draft of the Code was completed in 2019 but further deliberations have stalled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.