As expected, foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on Saturday issued an official statement on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In two short paragraphs, representatives of the 10-member ASEAN bloc said they were “deeply concerned,” but sidestepped any direct criticism of Russia.
Indeed, the two-paragraph statement is terse enough to quote in full:
“The ASEAN Foreign Ministers are deeply concerned over the evolving situation and armed hostilities in Ukraine. We call on all relevant parties to exercise maximum restraint and make utmost efforts to pursue dialogues through all channels, including diplomatic means to contain the situation, to de-escalate tensions, and to seek peaceful resolution in accordance with international law, the principles of the United Nations Charter, and the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia.”
“We believe that there is still room for a peaceful dialogue to prevent the situation from getting out of control. For peace, security, and harmonious co-existence to prevail, it is the responsibility of all parties to uphold the principles of mutual respect for the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and equal rights of all nations.”
As with the statements made by most individual Southeast Asian governments, the statement is notable above all for its tepidity and caution. There is no mention of Russia, nor any specific mention of the nature of its action – an invasion of a sovereign nation-state – nor any recognition of the fact that resistance to such a breach is both legally and morally justified.
Meanwhile, the reference to “all relevant parties” implies an equivalence between the two sides, as if the government of Ukraine was co-responsible for President Vladimir Putin’s invasion. Indeed, in this respect it closely echoes ASEAN’s Five-Point Consensus for the resolution of the crisis in Myanmar, which calls on “all parties” to refrain from violence and engage in peaceful dialogue.
This caution was also reflected in the region’s response to a draft United Nations resolution calling for Russia to end its aggression against Ukraine. Of Southeast Asia’s 11 governments, only Singapore and Timor-Leste signed on to the resolution.
As I explained last week, there are a number of reasons for ASEAN’s caution, from the reliance of certain nations on Russian arms purchases (according to some reports, this dependence is being emphasized by Moscow’s envoys in the region) to its reluctance to criticize a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council to its congenital bias toward dialogue and against rhetorical escalation.
ASEAN’s stance is also perhaps not so surprising, given the cautious position taken by many developing nations, most notably India. Indeed, aside from a few outliers, such as Kenya, which has denounced the Russian invasion in blistering postcolonial terms, there has been a marked split between the rich world and the Global South over how to handle the crisis. (The main outlier too this trend appears to be Latin America.)
In general terms, this can probably be explained by the postcolonial world’s concern about the current geopolitical polarization, given how it suffered during the Cold War. With Western opinion hardening toward Russia, and beginning to perceive Russia and China as a coherent strategic bloc despite the various issues on which they diverge, the noncommittal response of these nations reflects an allergy to any binary framing of global geopolitics.