ASEAN is slowly finding its voice over Ukraine

Protester's face painted in the colours of the Ukrainian flag during a mass protest at the Benjakitti park in Bangkok, Thailand against Russia's invasion. Photo by Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images.
Protester's face painted in the colours of the Ukrainian flag during a mass protest at the Benjakitti park in Bangkok, Thailand against Russia's invasion. Photo by Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images.

After a week in which they have struggled to say anything meaningful about the Russian attack on Ukraine, the ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) finally called for ‘an immediate ceasefire’. At the heart of ASEAN’s difficulties lies the region’s wide range of relationships with Moscow.

Russia’s closest partner in the region is probably Vietnam, its fifth-largest arms purchaser. Russian companies are also major investors in Vietnam’s oil and gas sector. At the other end of the scale, Singapore’s trade with Russia amounts to less than one per cent of its total international trade.

Straddling such divisions is normal business for ASEAN. It traditionally adopts a ‘lowest common denominator’ position between all the foreign ministries and so, as a result, ASEAN’s collective response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had been characteristically bland.

Its 26 February statement featured traditional calls for maximum restraint, dialogues, diplomatic means, and the de-escalation of tensions. No single country was directly criticized although ASEAN did note the responsibility of all parties to ‘uphold the principles of mutual respect for the sovereignty, territorial integrity and equal rights of all nations’. Several governments wanted to go further, and that pressure has resulted in a new, more assertive position.

The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) vote on Ukraine demonstrated Southeast Asia’s divisions, with Vietnam and Laos abstaining while Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand all supported the resolution. Myanmar’s UN seat is still currently occupied by a representative of the ousted democratically-elected government who also voted in favour – but if a representative of the military junta had occupied the seat instead, it would probably have joined the list of abstentions.

Russia’s regional trade in weapons

ASEAN trade with Russia is relatively small – in 2019 it was around $20 billion a year, less than half of its trade with Britain. Russia’s main business with the region is weapons exports with Vietnam, Myanmar, Malaysia, and Indonesia all using Russian military jets.

Ukraine also supplies defence equipment to Southeast Asia, but mainly for spare parts – Thailand was its third largest customer over the past five years according to the SIPRI database. More importantly for the region, Ukraine is the largest supplier of wheat to Indonesia, providing about one-fifth of that country’s imports.

But economics is not playing a major role in ASEAN’s low-key response to the invasion with the group more concerned about being seen to take sides. Rather than standing up for clear principles, ASEAN generally prefers to avoid entering the fray – it has not condemned any country for anything for at least the past 20 years.

However, certain countries have taken more critical positions, with Singapore announcing it would join in financial sanctions against Russia because, as a small state in a complex region, Singapore places great value on the principle of sovereignty. Brunei often follows Singapore’s lead and it did condemn the ‘violation of sovereignty’ but did not announce any practical measures against Russia, whereas Malaysia issued a mild statement but then announced it will not allow a Russian-flagged oil tanker to call at its ports.

Indonesia has criticized any action that ‘clearly constitutes a violation of the territorial territory and sovereignty of a country’ but did not name Russia, Thailand issued the briefest of statements saying it supports ‘ongoing efforts to find a peaceful settlement to the situation through dialogue’, and Vietnam remains silent so far.

The most obvious outlier is Myanmar, which itself was sanctioned by many countries after the 2021 military coup. It has increasingly close relations with Russia and appears to support the invasion, with a spokesman for the Myanmar junta telling Russian radio that Moscow is taking ‘necessary actions to preserve and strengthen its own sovereignty”.

The UNGA emergency session also gave several countries the opportunity to make statements on the invasion, with the Philippines condemning the ‘use of separatism and secession as a weapon of diplomacy’ – partly a reference to its own difficulties with ongoing insurgency in Mindanao.

With its latest statement, ASEAN is offering implicit criticism of Russia’s violation of Ukrainian sovereignty but that does not mean the organization is close to taking any action. All ASEAN countries value the principle of national sovereignty above almost everything else, but they see the best way to protect that sovereignty is to avoid entanglements in wider international affairs. For ASEAN, sovereignty is much easier to defend at home than abroad.

Bill Hayton, Associate Fellow, Asia-Pacific Programme.

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