Single title

Brunei Darussalam as ASEAN’s 2021 Chair

by Mathew L. Bukit, Hannah Elyse Sworn
The second chapter looks back at the ASEAN Chairmanship held by Brunei in 2021. It reflects on the challenges caused by the South China Sea dispute, the Covid-19 pandemic, and the coup d’état in Myanmar. The authors also apply Tallberg’s work on the effect of chairs on institutional efficiency and distribution and Young’s typology of leaderships to ASEAN’s unique institutional features.

Amidst the turmoil of a global pandemic and expected completion of the Code of Conduct
(CoC) for the South China Sea (SCS), Brunei Darussalam inherited the ASEAN chair in a particularly
challenging year that only grew more so with the February coup d’état in Myanmar.
This chapter contributes to the valuable but overlooked study of the ASEAN chair by applying
Tallberg’s work on the effect of chairs on institutional efficiency and distribution and Young’s
typology of leadership to ASEAN’s unique institutional features. The first ten months of Brunei’s
2021 term are evaluated according to its approaches to the SCS, the COVID-19 pandemic,
and the coup in Myanmar. These issues are analysed concerning how Brunei exercised
entrepreneurial and intellectual leadership to marshal legitimate and efficient institutional
outcomes that complied with ASEAN’s norms, as well as how Brunei balanced distributive
considerations to maintain intra-ASEAN trust.
Brunei was able to exclude the SCS from the ASEAN 2021 agenda, thanks to overcrowding
caused by COVID-19, reflecting efforts to secure preferential distribution in line with its economic
interests. However, Chinese actions that aggravated other ASEAN claimants and an
in-person summit with China forced Brunei to place the SCS back on the agenda, forgoing
biased distribution favouring efficiency and maintaining intra-ASEAN trust.
In the first half of 2021, Brunei demonstrated intellectual leadership in its approach to the
COVID-19 pandemic by employing a strict lockdown model with early success. Despite this,
the Sultanate stagnated by defaulting to a lockdown when faced with an outbreak of the virus
in August, while other ASEAN members pioneered the more economically productive endemic
model. Brunei exercised significant entrepreneurial leadership in driving an ASEAN’s
response to the Myanmar coup. To maintain ASEAN centrality, it established and represented
a unified ASEAN disapproval (but not outright condemnation) of the coup to the international
community—mainly via chair’s statements. However, these efforts ran into resistance
as the Myanmar’s military regime prevaricated on the five-point consensus, and intra-ASEAN
fissures hindered the body’s response. The chapter concludes by offering broad insights on
the ASEAN chair as well as lessons for Cambodia in 2022.