By: Gregory McCann

Last month Chinese President Xi Jinping paid his first official visit to Brunei, meeting with Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah to promote the Belt and Road Iniative (BRI), and to encourage peaceful resolutions to territorial disputes in the South China Sea, of which China has overlapping claims with all claimants, including Brunei. This state visit came after a cantankerous APEC meeting in Papua New Guinea where China employed “tantrum diplomacy” and sparred with the United States and the host government.

This state visit was smoother, and the small Bornean nation put on a nice welcome for Xi, as it did for the US Navy just a few weeks prior in its 24th Annual CARAT military exercise. The US Navy was in town to keep Xi’s overly ambitious territorial claims in check, while Xi was there to expand on them.

In fact, Brunei is increasingly finding itself caught between the intensifying US-China geopolitical rivalry. That much is clear, but what else is going in here? What else does China want?

China’s ecologically infamous Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River is well-known. Few people, however, have ever heard of “Brunei’s Three Gorges,” which was built in partnership with China’s equally infamous Sinohydro Corporation, which is responsible for the construction of numerous controversial dams across the planet, especially in the tropics. Construction on the Empangan Jubli Emas Ulu Tutong, or Ulu Tutong “Golden Jubilee Dam,” began in 2010 and wrapped up last year in 2017. Very little information is available detailing the construction of this dam, and almost nothing regarding the negative environmental side effects that resulted in its construction.

However, it is by now well-known that tropical dams spell big trouble in terms of blocking fish migrations, truncating river travel, harming terrestrial wildlife, dislocating local communities who lived in the catchment areas and in releasing large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The Golden Jubilee Dam on the Tutong River in Brunei would not have been much different. In fact, however, Brunei is a biodiversity hotspot, home to clouded leopards, binturongs, helmeted hornbills, and much more.

Places like Ulu Temburong National Park, clothed in jungle and verdure, stand in stark contrast to neighboring Sarawak and Sabah states in Malaysian Borneo where the vast majority of rain forest has been cut and converted to oil palm plantations. In fact, Brunei has some of if not the most pristine rain forest in Borneo.

But for China this largely pristine state would likely appear to be awaiting “development”—meaning highways, adams, oil refineries, bridges, ports, and other construction projects that can help China extend its clout. Free-flowing rivers would be a prime target, as Asia Sentinel reported earlier this year. Brunei, which has been able to conserve vast swaths of forest cover thanks to its oil reserves, being able to raise capital by tapping subterranean fossil fuels rather than converting its jungle into raw logs for export the way Malaysia and Indonesia do, will likely run out of oil in a couple of decades, however.  And this is where China comes in.

The South China Morning Post reports: “On a tiny island off Brunei’s northern tip on the South China Sea, thousands of Chinese workers are building a refinery and petrochemical complex, along with a bridge connecting it to the capital, Bandar Seri Begawan.” This follows what has become a very familiar pattern: invest in coastal development projects (Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Malaysia, Pakistan) and eventually (it doesn’t take long) retain virtually complete control over the project site and install a military base. Could Brunei’s Muara Besar Island be one of the new (long-planned) “string of pearls,” this one right in the South China Sea on the Bornean coast of Brunei? It’s difficult not to see it that way.  

Despite its camaraderie and capacity-building CARAT exercises with Brunei, the US Navy could see itself quickly outmaneuvered by China when these BRI development projects are completed. Brunei will at that point see itself walking an even more delicate line between the two powers, and it may need to choose sides.

But Chinese BRI projects mean importing Chinese labor, and this has already begun to annoy the local population in Brunei: “There are no jobs for us, so why create some for the Chinese?” asked one shopkeeper in the capital city, according to the South China Morning Post. In fact, anti-Chinese sentiment has been rising in The Philippines, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Laos, and elsewhere when large numbers of Chinese laborers are brought in to work on projects that many feel the local population could carry out. In fact, earlier this year in Cambodia, PM Hun Sen had to assure the Khmer people that “Chinese don’t want to live here” because the Chinese population continues to rise, and almost certainly beyond the official numbers.

The kind of sentiment expressed by the shopkeeper in Bandar Seri Begawan will only increase as BRI investment spikes. BRI projects seem designed to coerce the host countries into handing over strategic ports and territory due to financial stress caused by the terms of agreement, and to wreak havoc on the local people and the natural environment. Governments that fall for this ploy would be, in China’s eyes, pearls indeed.

Gregory McCann is the Project Coordinator for Habitat ID and the author of the book Called Away by a Mountain Spirit: Journeys to the Green Corridor. He is spearheading a plan to stop a dam in Sumatra.