[Brunei–China] ties have improved while the Bruneian economy slips because of declining world oil prices and diminishing supplies. Oil and gas make up 60 percent of Brunei’s economy.

China is propping up that economy now with investments that will make it easier to tap, process and transport fossil fuels, experts say. Economic concerns will take “priority” over political issues including sovereignty, said Jonathan Spangler, director of the South China Sea Think Tank in Taipei.

“I think that China has not so much been using like an aggressive approach with Brunei, but just using economic incentives,” Spangler said. “I don’t know if it will even need to tell Brunei what to do about its maritime claims.”

As recent signs of closer ties, Chinese contractors built a 2,680-meter-long sea bridge that’s due to open this month. China’s Hengyi Petrochemicals Co. offered $79 million worth of bonds last month on a Chinese stock exchange to fund a petrochemical plant in Brunei.

Beijing may later use its ties with Brunei to win favor with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Spangler said. That bloc includes Brunei as well as members such as Vietnam that resent Beijing’s maritime expansion. China has tapped Cambodia, Laos and the Philippines for similar support before.

“If you can control one of those members from the outside, then you can control the entire group,” he said.