BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – The United States is keen to deepen defence engagement with Brunei, after launching the third iteration of the Pahlawan Warrior exercise on Monday (Jun 13). 

US State Department Counsellor Derek Chollet, who was in Brunei as part of a diplomatic swing that included Thailand and Singapore, said the US military is looking to develop new areas of cooperation with Brunei and other Southeast Asian countries with which it has shared security interests. 

While current US engagement with the Brunei military has primarily been in the maritime arena — such as the bilateral CARAT and multilateral SEACAT and RIMPAC exercises — Pahlawan is an army-to-army exercise that focuses jungle and urban warfare.

Both countries have said the military exchanges were critical to ensuring a free and open Indo-Pacific region.

In late May, leaders of the Quad security group — which comprises the US, Japan, India and Australia — launched an ambitious initiative called the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness, which aims to foster information sharing and provide near-real-time monitoring of waters and coastlines in three critical regions—the Pacific Islands, Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean region.

It would allow partners the ability to track illegal fishing and “grey-zone” activities, the White House said.

When asked if there had been specific discussions with Brunei to be part of the initiative, Chollet said discussions had only been in general terms but that it was an important component of the defence relationship.

Brunei also recently launched a new drone squadron in a bid to boost surveillance and intelligence gathering in the maritime domain.

“The defence relationship is maturing, the exercise that started today is one small example of that but our defence cooperation is growing and that’s something that the United States is keen on to develop further, and our diplomatic cooperation is growing significantly,” Chollet told reporters.

The envoy’s first visit to Brunei included meetings with the Second Minister of Foreign Affairs Dato Hj Erywan PDPJ Hj Mohd Yusof, newly-appointed Deputy Defence Minister Brigadier General Dato Hj Razak Hj Abd Kadir, as well as business and civil society leaders.

He said the visit was a follow-up to the outcome of last month’s ASEAN-US Special Summit in Washington DC, in order to “demonstrate US commitment to Southeast Asia”. 

A US naval officer sits aboard the P-8A Poseidon aircraft as the plane flies over Brunei waters on Nov 14, 2018. Photo: Ain Bandial/The Scoop

Talks with officials in Brunei, Thailand and Singapore also touched on territorial rights in the South China Sea, and China’s efforts to broaden its military footprint in the region and the wider world.

With the US designating the Indo-Pacific as its main theatre of operations going forward, Chollet said Washington is trying to strengthen existing partnerships within ASEAN, as well as forge new security agreements such as AUKUS and the Quad. 

“Both of those are about building and strengthening our ties with existing partners in the region. AUKUS is a very ambitious defence agreement and the implementation is on track,” he said.

ASEAN will also benefit from enduring US and British security presence in the region in the coming years, he said.

‘US wants to support ASEAN in addressing Myanmar crisis’

In his meeting with Dato Erywan, Chollet said they discussed the crisis in Myanmar at length, given Dato Erywan’s “leadership and expertise” as ASEAN’s first special envoy to Myanmar.

“It’s been a central part of our discussions over the last week in Thailand, Singapore and here in Brunei — and again I want to applaud Brunei’s leadership of ASEAN during a difficult year last year with the coup in February 2021 and leading ASEAN to make some very important decisions including by adopting the five-point consensus, by appointing an ASEAN special envoy, and by guiding ASEAN to make the very difficult decision to not allow Myanmar to be represented at the political level at ministerial and summit meetings.”

“I don’t think we can stress enough how important that is, particularly given the behavior of the junta and the fact that that’s only getting worse. So what we have been talking about over the course of our meetings here is about how we can strengthen the five-point consensus, how we can better cooperate with one another as we seek to bring pressure on the junta, help democratising opposition and provide humanitarian relief to the people,” Chollet said.

Other topics broached included Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, climate change, maintaining visa-free travel, building cultural and people-to-people exchanges, and increasing the number of Fulbright scholars.