Territorial disputes: South China Sea (Part 9) [Post 124]

South China Sea and Brunei

Brunei’s claim is relatively limited in comparison to the other five claimant states. Brunei claims only a 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) under the terms of UNCLOS, in addition to several land features falling within its legally delimited boundaries in the southern portion of the sea, including Louisa Reef, Owen Shoal and Rifleman Bank. In direct contrast to each of the other claimants, Brunei does not occupy any land features in the sea and maintains no permanent military presence in the area to enforce its claim.

There is very little information available as to the implementation of Brunei’s maritime claims. The United Nations (UN) Division of Ocean Affairs and Law of the Sea (DOALOS) Table of Claims to Maritime Jurisdiction (as of 15 July 2011) lists Brunei as claiming a 12-mile territorial sea; a 200-mile EEZ; and a continental shelf to the outer edge of the continental margin, or to 200 nautical miles where the outer edge does not extend up to that distance.

The DOALOS maritime legislation website only lists the Territorial Waters of Brunei Act, 1982, and the preliminary information of its claim to an extended continental shelf in the South China Sea.


Brunei is considered a relatively low-profile claimant in the South China Sea dispute, especially in recent years, during which tensions have increased significantly. The country has consistently advocated its “two-step approach” to resolving the dispute. This entails not merely that claimants seek to resolve the dispute through peaceful negotiation in accordance with international law, but also the need for all parties – including ASEAN and China – to ensure a peaceful and conducive environment in which the negotiations take place. Statements from Brunei have been relatively measured over the years, with little information being offered or stated regarding increased Chinese activities in the southernmost portions of its Nine-Dash Line claim.

While Brunei is the smallest claimant state with the smallest claim, geographic and economic realities make the dispute and its outcome of great importance to the Sultanate. The country’s entire coastline of 161km straddles the South China Sea. It is also a country that relies overwhelmingly on oil and gas exports – which contributes as much as 90 per cent of government revenue and 60 per cent of its GDP. The vast majority of these hydrocarbon resources are concentrated offshore in its EEZ in the South China Sea – much of which lies close to or falls within China’s Nine-Dash Line claim.


The unspoken arrangement whereby Brunei remains silent on the South China Sea issue in order to secure Chinese investment has the potential to benefit both countries. Even if it was on a sound, self-sustained economic footing, as a small country Brunei was always going to have a difficult time enforcing its claim against a far more powerful China. Instead, Brunei opts to take a deliberately quiet approach, though one that falls short of relinquishing its claim entirely. The issue remains present in the background where it serves as leverage to secure Chinese investment to aid the country’s long-term development plan, which in turn is essential for maintaining the legitimacy of Brunei’s rulers.


Brunei is no doubt aware of its dwindling oil reserves and the problems that creates for the sustainability of political power. Commentators have noted how the influx of investment from Beijing in recent years has coincided with the suppression of anything that might be deemed mildly critical of China as well as the silence by the sultanate on anything that might offend Beijing, including the South China Sea.


Malaysia and Brunei: An Analysis of their Claims in the South China Sea 
Link to document

Key Issues and Dilemmas for Brunei

Brunei Abandons South China Sea Claim for Chinese Finance

The Diplomat


Jorge Emilio Núñez

Twitter: @London1701

13th September 2018

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