Indian VP to visit Brunei as it reels from oil price fall

Brunei is trying to diversify away from oil. Source: Flickr

Indian Vice-President Hamid Ansari is due to take a five-day trip to Brunei and Thailand in early February to strengthen India’s ties with the two Southeast Asian states.

The visit comes as Brunei looks for trading opportunities as it struggles with falling fuel prices. BP World Energy Outlook reported that the country had enough oil left for just 22 years at its current pace of extraction, compared to Saudi Arabia’s 63.

Brunei’s development plan, Vision Brunei 2035, aims to diversify into areas like halal manufacturing, information technology and tourism.

The Financial Times reported that Brunei’s fiscal deficit was expected to reach 10 per cent of GDP last year, compared with a 28 per cent surplus in 2011. Meanwhile, more than half the population works in the state sector.

India’s Ministry of External Affairs said Ansari’s Southeast Asian voyage would begin with an visit to Brunei from February 1 to 3 – the first high-level visit to the tiny sultanate from an Indian leader since diplomatic ties were established in 1984.

The trip was postponed from November when an Indonesian volcano prevented air travel.

Ansari will meet Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah and Crown Prince Haji Al-Muhtadee Billah and members of the Indian community and tour the University of Brunei Darussalam.

Civil aviation, trade and investment, energy, information and communication, and space cooperation, and memorandums of understanding in the fields of health and defence are on the agenda.

“I don’t think any economist would be very bullish about the future of Brunei’s non-oil and gas sectors, to put it mildly,” Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

Ansari will be make the first visit to Thailand by an Indian vice-president in 50 years. He will hold a meeting with Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha as well as Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, a Sanskrit scholar.

He is due to speak on India’s Look East Policy at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok and address the Indian community in Thailand at the Indian ambassador’s residence.

Ansari will visit Chiang Mai to attend a banquet and visit the Royal Development Study Centre on Sustainable Development.

“Sustained high-level bilateral exchanges and regular meetings of bilateral institutional mechanisms have provided a major fillip to India-Thailand relations and achieved progress in key areas of cooperation such as security, defence, commerce, science and technology and education,” the External Affairs Ministry said.

Ansari will be accompanied by a minister and four MPs.

In other diplomatic news, Singapore has appointed Lim Hong Huai as high commissioner to Brunei.

He will take up the post on March 21. He joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1994 and served as consul-general in Johor Bahru, Malaysia, from May 2010 to June 2013 and was also posted to Jakarta and Washington.

He graduated in law from the National University of Singapore in 1994 and has a master’s degree from Harvard.