Australia seeks closer maritime cooperation with Brunei After senior officials' talks last month, Australia's envoy says maritime cooperation is 'most important' aspect of bilateral relationship

BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – The Australian government is keen to deepen maritime cooperation with Brunei through increased defence engagement and strengthening expertise in international law of the sea.

Following talks between senior officials last month, Australian High Commissioner to Brunei Luke Arnold said maritime cooperation represents the “most important” aspect of the bilateral relationship with both countries emphasising respect for sovereignty and a rules-based order.

Arnold said Canberra plans to “intensify” training with Bruneian officials on international law of the sea in order to develop a cadre of local experts who can address challenges to maritime sovereignty, particularly in the South China Sea where Brunei is a claimant.

“We’re seeing examples of international law not always being adhered to or recognised in the South China Sea,” he told The Scoop in a recent interview.

“Australia doesn’t pick sides among claimants in the South China Sea – we support international law. Brunei’s claims appear to be consistent with international law and particularly the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which underpins Australia’s maritime cooperation in the region. We believe all maritime claims – including in the South China Sea – must be consistent with UNCLOS.”

Brunei, along with Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Taiwan, lay claim to some parts of the South China Sea — where one third of global trade passes through every year — overlapping with China’s expansive claims to almost all of the sea.

Tensions in the resource-rich waterway have risen in recent months, with the US accusing China of increased “provocations” against rival claimants and other states operating in the sea.

According to international law, every country has the right to claim up to 12 nautical miles from its coast as its territory and can claim an exclusive economic zone extending up to 200 nautical miles for activities like drilling or fishing.

Australian High Commissioner to Brunei Luke Arnold. Photo: Ain Bandial/The Scoop

Arnold said Australia had already begun basic training with Bruneian officials on UNCLOS, and would also cooperate with other like-minded nations such as Japan to develop local expertise on the issue.

He added that fisheries was also a key area of maritime cooperation, expressing hope that Australia could help build Brunei’s capacity to monitor and respond to illegal fishing in its waters.

Brunei and Australia already have robust defence engagement, with resident defence advisors established in both countries since 2020 to help coordinate joint exercises and training.

Australia in Southeast Asia

During Brunei’s chairmanship of ASEAN last year, Australia and the 10-member bloc established a “comprehensive strategic partnership”, a sign of Canberra’s ambition to play a bigger role in the region.

Newly-elected Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has also signalled his intent to deepen cooperation with the region by appointing a special envoy to Southeast Asia.

“During the senior officials talks we were discussing the ways in which Brunei and Australia can work together to shape [the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership] to make it matter — we don’t want it just to be symbolic,” Arnold said.

“We want it to make our neighbourhood wealthier, more prosperous, safer and more stable because that will benefit us too.”

This article was updated on August 29, 2022  to reflect a clarification to the quote in the fifth paragraph.