Defence, health deals on cards as India reaches out to Brunei

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Old 02-Feb-2016
Post Defence, health deals on cards as India reaches out to Brunei

Vice-President Mohammad Hamid Ansari, who arrived here on Monday on a first-ever bilateral visit by a high-level Indian dignitary to oil-rich Brunei since diplomatic relations were established 32 years ago, will for the first time be signing a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on defence in addition to agreements on health and sports.
Ansari’s current two-nation visit to this former British protectorate located on the South China Sea, followed by Thailand on Wednesday, is in keeping with India’s consciously developed “Act East” policy that has replaced the “Look East” policy conceived in 1993 during former Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao’s tenure.
“It is a concerted policy developed over time which has now attained depth and content,” Ansari told mediapersons on board the aircraft. “India, as a result, has now developed good economic and defence relations with the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) both as a grouping and individually,” he added.
The MoU on defence, in particular, assumes significance considering that Islamic country of Brunei, a kingdom headed by one of the world’s richest man, is seeking to balance bigger nations in its neighbourhood, particularly China with which it has disputes in the South China Sea, notably over the Spratly Islands that is zealously claimed by Beijing.
As of now, the MoU on defence will focus on primary issues such as training, sale of equipment and joint exercises. Brunei, which has a tiny defence force, continues to host a Gorkha battalion of Britain’s Royal Army that both guards the Sultan’s palace and is also located in the oil-rich sub-district of Seri, ever since it got independence from the United Kingdom in 1984. With Britain expressing an interest to withdraw its Gorkha battalion, only time will reveal whether an Indian Infantry battalion could fill that void. “It is for Brunei to decide”, said a senior official speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Describing relations with Brunei, which is an important source of oil import for India, as excellent, Ansari acknowledged that “for some odd reason” no top-level dignitary had ever visited Brunei although the Sultan of Brunei has thrice visited India since 1992. Two of these have been bilateral visits. An Indian Prime Minister has visited Brunei only once and that too on a multilateral Asean-India and East Asia Summit in 2013. “But this does not reflect on our relations which are very friendly,” said Ansari. “Brunei has been the country coordinator for three years for Asean and it has been a positive experience,” he explained.
On the future of trade relations with Brunei, Ansari said these were limited considering Brunei was a “one-product country” (oil) and had a limited population. The potential for growth with Thailand with which India had “more substantive relations”, he said, was far greater.
India is currently the third largest destination for exports from Brunei and makes up for 10 per cent of Brunei’s exports. Brunei’s major markets are Japan and South Korea. Although Brunei produces nine per cent of the world’s liquid petroleum gas, it is unable to sell any to India since it has contracted sale of LPG to other countries. But we are exploring the possibility of purchasing gas for a locally set up chemical plant which will produce urea for export to India, he said.

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