BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong arrived in Brunei for two-day visit on Monday (Oct. 31), as part of a regional tour to deepen engagement with Southeast Asia.

On Monday afternoon, Wong met with His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah at Istana Nurul Iman, and held talks with Second Minister of Foreign Affairs Dato Erywan Yusof which covered maritime security, food security, mental health, and climate change.

In an interview with The Scoop, Wong said Brunei was a “valued partner” for Australia and that the new Labor government sees ASEAN as central to its foreign policy.

“We’re really appreciative of Brunei’s leadership within ASEAN, particularly last year when they chaired ASEAN and were very helpful to Australia,” she said, referring to Australia’s elevation as a comprehensive strategic partner of the 10-nation bloc.

The pact with ASEAN signals Canberra’s ambition to play a bigger role in the region, strengthening Australia’s diplomatic and security ties in an area that has been a strategic battleground between major powers.

As well as forging closer political ties, Wong said the ASEAN-Australia Comprehensive Strategic Partnership would support development projects in the region — in areas such as energy security and climate change — as well as offer hundreds of scholarships to Southeast Asian students to study in Australia.

Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong meets with Bruneian recipients of the ‘Australia for ASEAN’ scholarship. Photo: DFAT/Nathan Fulton

She added there was “untapped potential” for Brunei and Australia to explore cooperation in renewable energy.

“I’ve made this comment in a few of my discussions with ministers. We’re different countries… but we’re both quite dependent on emissions-intensive industries for our economy,” she said.

“How do you go about transforming your economy to be competitive in a world where it’s net zero by 2050?… We’re both grappling with a similar transition, there’s probably room for more cooperation.”

As China’s dominance in the region grows, Australia has also sought to bolster maritime security cooperation with Brunei through increased defence engagement and strengthening local expertise in international law of the sea.

Speaking on maritime cooperation with the sultanate, Wong said Canberra will “work with all parties to make sure they are empowered in terms of their rights under international law”.

“All countries — small or big — have the same rights under international law. One of the areas where there this is more contested at times is in the maritime domain,” she said.
“We want a region which is stable and prosperous, and in which sovereignty is respected, and these rules are part of that.”

Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong lays a wreath at the Brunei-Australia Memorial at Muara Beach. Photo: DFAT/Nathan Fulton

When asked about Myanmar and the lack of progress on an ASEAN-brokered peace plan, the foreign minister said what happens in Myanmar matters to the region in the long-term.

She echoed the bloc in calling for the junta to “respond appropriately” to the five-point consensus, but stopped short of endorsing targeted sanctions.

“Australia shares the view with ASEAN member states that the abrogation of democracy is a retrograde step. We strongly support the five-point consensus. We condemn the human rights abuses we have seen, including the execution of civil rights activists.”

Wong will depart Brunei on Tuesday and continue on to Thailand.