This article is part of Conceptualization of “Maritime Security” in Southeast Asia, a series of analyses produced by experts convened by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

“Maritime security” in Brunei Darussalam’s national language

Maritime security is oft mentioned in Brunei Darussalam’s national documents in its English form. This is primarily because these national security documents were originally released in the English Language. For example, maritime security is referenced in Brunei Darussalam’s Defense White Papers. These documents are published in English and does not have a version written in Malay (Bahasa Melayu), Brunei Darussalam’s national language. Nevertheless, in national newspaper articles or public speeches, maritime security is often referred to in Malay as ‘keselamatan maritim.’[1]

The usage of this term is distinct when directly translated. Keselamatan refers to safety with associated meanings to security and peace. In other parts of the region such as Indonesia, maritime security is translated as ‘keamanan maritim’ which is a direct reference to establishing peace within the maritime environment.

However, caution needs to be practiced when conceptualizing Brunei’s concept of maritime security from the term keselamatan maritim. As maritime security was first officially discussed in national documents written in the English Language, this does not necessarily reflect the country’s preference to prioritize safety over preserving security and regional stability. Brunei has so far demonstrated a focus on ensuring the safety of passage for all users at sea in addition to protecting national security interests in the maritime domain.

Brunei Darussalam’s official definition for and usage of maritime security

There is no commonly held definition of maritime security within the Brunei government. The national Working Committee on Maritime Security hosts nine relevant enforcement agencies that together coordinate their activities to jointly patrol and monitor activities in Brunei’s riverine and sea domain. Consequently, agencies view maritime security through the lens of their different scope of responsibilities. According to their mission statements, agencies such as the Marine Police would approach maritime security as the professional enforcement of law at sea while the Royal Brunei Navy perceives maritime security as the imperative to defend maritime sovereignty and territorial integrity of Brunei.[2] Maritime agencies would thus benefit from a nationwide discussion that can generate explicit consensus on a common understanding of maritime security across all agencies. This would help set out a clear definition of roles and support the effective management of enforcement assets across Brunei’s maritime zones.

Brunei Darussalam’s key documents for defining and understanding maritime security

The 1973 Fisheries Act provides a legal definition on the parameters surrounding Brunei Darussalam Waters, which are:

“all waters whether navigable or not within Brunei Darussalam and that part of the seas adjacent to Brunei Darussalam both within and outside territorial waters, within which citizens of Brunei Darussalam have by international law the exclusive right of fishing; and where such part is defined by the terms of any convention, treaty or arrangement for the time being in force between Brunei Darussalam and any other State, includes the part so defined;”[3]

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Defence plays a key role in shaping and prioritizing the country’s perceived maritime security threats through the release of its Defence White Papers. The country’s first White Paper, which was released in 2011, placed heavy emphasis on threats posed by environmental disasters, regional terrorism activities, and fluctuating oil and gas prices. As compared to these threats, maritime security priorities were relatively lower on the agenda although a brief mention recognized the potential role of “unresolved boundaries, growing maritime capabilities, and major power relativities” in impacting issues in the South China Sea. Rather, the management of marine and seabed resources, regulation of safe international passage at sea, and the threat of piracy were highlighted as key threats in the maritime environment. Consequently, the White Paper crafted the operational approach in the maritime domain around surveillance by “expanding the force’s capacity for more continuous broad area coverage both in maritime areas” with the aim to “monitor and support civil agencies to regulate activity” in offshore economic and fishing zones.[4]

The 2021 Defence White Paper shows a drastic shift in perspective, according greater strategic significance to Brunei’s maritime domain. In a comprehensive paragraph dedicated to regional tensions in the maritime environment, the White Paper identifies increasing risks surrounding overlapping claims, emerging threats to the safety of sea lines of communication, and other non-traditional security threats. An explicit reference is also made to the “risk of miscalculation and the ensuing spiraling of regional instability,” a concern noted as the “most significant threat” in the maritime domain. The decision to prioritize maritime security is timely and echoes Brunei’s recent calls to the rest of the region to better uphold international law while building more effective and integrated maritime security capabilities. This urgency is also reflected in domestic efforts to reassess Brunei’s strategic posture and conduct a Force Capability Review.[5]

Brunei Darussalam’s elements of maritime security? Environmental protection, mariner safety, fisheries management, resource management (other than fisheries), counter-terrorism, law enforcement, naval operations, deterrence.

With the emerging emphasis on hard security, the 2021 Defence White Paper situates the country’s maritime environment within a fluid and volatile security environment. Security tensions created by imbalances in regional power dynamics are posed as a catalyst that escalates the nature of other threats such as maritime terrorism, piracy, unlawful intrusions, illegal fishing, and the trafficking of drugs, weapons, and humans. The risk of miscalculation and the growing militarization of the maritime environment are also highlighted, calling for more integrated law enforcement and naval operation initiatives. However, in practice, Brunei’s oil and gas industry has also long been operating with a conscious effort to uphold sustainable development with minimal impact on the maritime environment. As a maritime state with an economic reliance on both onshore and offshore oil and gas development, Brunei’s maritime security is also dependent on other stakeholders aside from enforcement agencies. By extending more recognition to other maritime stakeholders such as oil and gas companies and the fishery department, a more holistic approach can be implemented to better uphold other elements of maritime security within the country.

Evolution in Brunei Darussalam’s usage of the term ‘maritime security’

Brunei’s construct of maritime security and its security priorities are heavily driven by developments taking place within the country’s immediate periphery. Shifts in the geostrategic environment have a direct correlation with changes in Brunei’s definition of maritime security. Where maritime security was once framed as the preservation of undersea resources in the 2011 Defence White Paper, recent tensions surrounding the South China Sea dispute and the subsequent reactions of Brunei’s maritime neighbors have since produced a more realpolitik usage of the term in the 2021 Defence White Paper.

Additional context for Brunei Darussalam

Brunei is in a precarious position as a claimant state to the South China Sea dispute because of its small geographical size and limited maritime assets and capabilities. As the security environment in the South China Sea continues to rapidly evolve, the country’s enforcement agencies are faced with the challenge of quickly yet carefully adapting to security developments without inciting negative threat perceptions from its neighbors. This is a fine line for Brunei to maintain as further militarization and emerging concerns of a potential arms race may eventually coerce a firmer strategic posture towards the South China Sea dispute. In the meantime, Brunei’s existing options are regional coordinating mechanisms and multilateral naval exercises that the country relies on to maintain a defense of its territorial claims and preserve its carefully crafted vision of maritime security.

[1] Brunei Darussalam Prime Minister’s Office, “Keselamatan dan Penguatkuasaan”, Prime Minister’s Office, last modified 2018, http://jpm.gov.bn/SitePages/Keselamatan%20dan%20Penguatkuasaan.aspx

[2] Polis Diraja Brunei, “Maritime Security as a Joint Responsibility: Building Capabilities through Multilateral Interaction and Cooperation between Royal Brunei Marine Police and other Enforcement Agencies”, Royal Brunei Police Force, accessed 10 September 2021, https://www.iqpc.com/media/1000532/39088.pdf and Royal Brunei Navy, Royal Brunei Navy, accessed 10 September 2021, https://navy.mindef.gov.bn/Theme/Home.aspx

[3] Fisheries Act , 1973, Brunei Darussalam, http://www.agc.gov.bn/AGC%20Images/LAWS/ACT_PDF/Chp.61.pdf

[4] Ministry Defence of Brunei Darussalam, Defending the Nation’s Sovereignty: Expanding Roles in Wider Horizons, accessed 20 September 2011, https://www.mindef.gov.bn/Defence%20White%20Paper/DWP%202011.pdf

[5] Ministry Defence of Brunei Darussalam, Defending the Nation’s Sovereignty: A Secure and Resilient Future – Defence White Paper 2021, accessed on 13 September 2021, https://www.mindef.gov.bn/Defence%20White%20Paper/DWP%202021.pdf

About Asyura Salleh