BANGKOK, Thailand -- The Pentagon has conducted its first army-to-army
exercise in Brunei along the strategic, contested South China Sea
after the U.S. State Department suggested obedience to the sultanate's
Islamic Shariah laws which punish offenders, including homosexuals and

The main job of Brunei's small army is to protect the country's
petroleum and natural gas fields.

The August 6-16 Pahlawan Warrior exercise included 33 U.S. Army and
Indiana Army National Guard soldiers under the U.S. Indo-Pacific
Command (USINDOPACOM) partnered with Royal Brunei Land Forces on
jungle warfare operations, urban terrain tactics and other practice.

They "spent four nights located deep within the nation's southwest
rainforest" in operations observed by Hawaii-based members of the 25th
Infantry Division Lighting Academy, according to the U.S. Army Pacific
Public Affairs Office.

"Bruneian Soldiers taught classes on jungle survival, movement to
contact, land navigation and ambush techniques. The training
culminated in a bilateral attack," the Army said.

They also "practiced a multi-pronged attack on an enemy who occupied a
three-story building," plus sniper assaults, troops rappelling onto a
roof from a Blackhawk helicopter and Scorpion tanks firing to protect
moving personnel carriers.

"Pahlawan Warrior is a truly historical event as it marks a first
bilateral exercise between our two great armies,” said National Guard
deputy commander, Maj. Gen. Timothy McKeithen.

In 1994, "Brunei and the United States signed a memorandum of
understanding (MOU) on military and defense cooperation," the U.S.
Embassy in Brunei said.

"This agreement resulted in joint exercises, training programs, and
other forms of military cooperation between the two nations, which is
still in effect today."

In 2014, "the first member of the U.S. armed forces graduated from the
Brunei Command and Staff College, and the United States has enrolled a
student each year since," the embassy said.

Pahlawan Warrior "signifies the spirit of camaraderie of both
exercising troops in being brave to break the ice amongst themselves,
especially in the sharing of knowledge and experience to the
application of techniques, tactics and procedures at the tactical
level," Royal Brunei Land Forces' Chief of Staff, Brig. Gen. Kairul
Hamed said.

The U.S. training boosts Brunei's self-appointed prime minister,
Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, who rules with near-absolute power over the
former British protectorate which has a 78 percent Muslim population.

The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps trained with Brunei's armed forces in
November 2017 as part of the Pentagon's annual Cooperational Afloat
Readiness and Training (CARAT) maritime exercise.

Their CARAT training on sea, land and air began in 1995, and the
latest round included "port security, aviation and surface warfare,
diving and salvage, military medicine, law, public affairs, along with
a comprehensive at sea exercise," the U.S. Navy said in a statement.

Tiny Brunei is wedged into Borneo island's north coast along the South
China Sea, across the water from southern Vietnam.

Brunei claims territorial rights on a few small, nearby islands
contested by China, similar to claims by other Southeast Asian
countries over islands near their shores.

But Brunei is the smallest and weakest claimant to any islands, with
little ability to enforce its claims.

Washington opposes Beijing's exclusive domination over islands in the
South China Sea including the Paracels and the Spratly archipelago.

President Donald Trump's administration is wooing Southeast Asian
claimants -- with mixed success -- to support the U.S. position.

Brunei's increasingly important commercial relations with China
however have resulted in its claims being kept very low-key, compared
to much more volatile disputes against China by Vietnam, Malaysia and
the Philippines.

While Brunei has enjoyed lavish wealth from its oil and natural gas
reserves, it has recently become vulnerable to petroleum price drops
and anxious to diversify its economy.

"Brunei remains entirely hostage to hydrocarbons," the Japan-based
financial magazine Nikkei Asian Review reported.

"The economy has been ravaged by the plunge in energy prices,
undermining the cradle-to-grave social system funded through Brunei's
50 percent holding in Brunei Shell Petroleum," it said.

After recently encouraging more foreign investment, China has become
Brunei's biggest partner, estimated at more than $4 billion including
in an oil refinery and petrochemical complex near Brunei's capital
Bandar Seri Begawan.

An additional $12 billion Chinese-assisted expansion of that complex
is forecast in coming years, along with ports and aquaculture

During the military exercise, U.S. forces needed to obey Brunei's
Shariah laws while in public.

"When in public, travelers should consider removing religious jewelry
and concealing religious tattoos," said the U.S. State Department's
Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC), co-chaired by the
Diplomatic Security Service.

"Brunei has outlawed public celebrations of Christmas, purportedly
under the belief that symbols including the crucifix, candles,
Christmas trees, the exchange of Christmas greetings, and the singing
of Christmas carols are all un-Islamic and may tempt Muslims to leave
their faith," OSAC warned in a recent report issued for internal U.S.
private sector security purposes.

"LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersexed) sex acts
are criminalized in Brunei under Civil Law and also under Brunei's
Shariah Penal Code, with possible punishments including fines and
sentences of up to 10 years in prison," OSAC said.