Earlier in the week, between the deployment of Russian forces to the Donbas puppet republics and the full-scale invasion that was launched yesterday, I wrote an article surveying Southeast Asia’s response to the growing tensions. In particular, I wrestled with the question of why the governments of the region, which are usually so defensive of their own sovereignty and territorial integrity, were being so reticent about Russia violating these principles in the case of Ukraine.
Since yesterday’s invasion, as world leaders condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and slapped heavy sanctions on the Russian economy and President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle, Southeast Asian governments have begun responding to the crisis. While understandably prioritizing the evacuation of their citizens from Ukraine, foreign ministers from the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have found time to draft a joint statement about the crisis.
According to a draft of the statement obtained by Reuters, the statement calls on “all parties concerned to exercise maximum restraint, to pursue dialogue through all channels, including diplomatic means to contain the situation, to prevent it from further escalation and to see peaceful resolution in accordance with international law and the United Nations Charter.”
The statement reflects the baseline of caution with which most of the region continues to approach the emergency in Eastern Europe and displays a continuing reluctance to denounce openly the aggression against a sovereign state.
Given that the ASEAN draft statement reflects a regional consensus, individual countries’ responses unsurprisingly diverge to various extents from this mean. As was the case following Russia’s initial entry into the Donbas, and following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, the most outspoken nation was Singapore, whose Foreign Ministry spokesperson yesterday stated that the government was “gravely concerned” by the Russian invasion and said that Singapore “strongly condemns any unprovoked invasion of a sovereign country under any pretext.” At the other extreme was Myanmar’s embattled military junta, which unsurprisingly (and depressingly) described Russia’s invasion as “an appropriate measure to preserve its sovereignty.”
The remainder of the region has fallen somewhere close to ASEAN’s wishy-washy middle position, penning cautious statements about the need for “restraint” and a “peaceful resolution” to the crisis and rarely mentioning Russia by name. In a statement posted on Twitter yesterday, Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry emphasized the importance of international law and the “respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty,” adding that “the military attack on Ukraine is unacceptable.” But the statement did not mention Russia by name, and called on “all parties to cease hostilities and put forward peaceful resolution through diplomacy.”
Malaysia’s Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob said that his government “hopes that the best possible peaceful solution can be reached immediately between Ukraine and Russia, followed by a successful resolution of the said conflict.” Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen, who welcomed Ismail to Phnom Penh yesterday, similarly stated that the situation in Ukraine was “very concerning” and expressed his wish for a “peaceful solution.” The Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed its “deep concern” and said that it supported “ongoing efforts to find a peaceful settlement to the situation through dialogue.”
Meanwhile a Foreign Ministry spokesperson in Vietnam, Russia’s closest partner in the region and a longtime purchaser of Russian arms, said that Vietnam was keeping a “close watch” on the recent tensions. According to a state media paraphrase of her comments, the spokesperson “called on relevant sides to practice self-restraint, step up dialogue efforts, and promote diplomatic measures to peacefully deal with conflicts in line with the United Nations Charter and basic principles of international law.” But as Radio Free Asia noted, the reporting on the crisis in Vietnam’s state-controlled media was much more critical of Ukraine, perhaps offering insights as to Hanoi’s real views of the matter.
Most surprising is the silence from the Philippines, which despite being led by President Rodrigo Duterte, has been outspoken, at least by ASEAN standards, about the ongoing crisis in Myanmar. A statement issued by the Department of Foreign Affairs, yesterday focused on efforts to repatriate the 181 Filipino nationals currently living in Ukraine, but made no mention of the conflict as such. The same was true of comments made yesterday by a presidential spokesperson. So far, Laos and Brunei appear not to have made official statements about the Russian invasion.
Based on these initial reactions, and despite their obvious self-interest in speaking out about the precedent set by Putin’s historically and strategically revisionist action, it is hard to see most southeast Asian governments doing much more in response to the Russian invasion. Few, if any, are likely to impose economic sanctions and visa bans on Russian officials, or withdraw their ambassadors from Moscow. Indeed, an Indonesian Foreign Ministry spokesperson has already ruled out sanctions, saying that Jakarta “will not blindly follow the steps taken by another country.”
There are likely a number of reasons for this. First, as I noted this week, these sorts of actions are simply not part of ASEAN’s playbook, which focuses on preserving dialogue and eschews what it perceives as moralistic gestures. (Hence, the calls for “restraint” and a “peaceful solution.”) Second, many governments in the region likely perceive the Ukraine crisis as remote and therefore not directly relevant to their interests, except in their potential global economic effects.
Third is the reality that Russia is a big country with outsized influence due to its permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). It is also a leading arms supplier to the region and boasts historical ties with several nations dating back to the Cold War. (In connection with this, it is worth noting that no Southeast Asian nation did more than express rhetorical opposition to the invasion of another sovereign nation by a permanent member of the UNSC in 2003.) Fourth, certain governments – certainly Myanmar, maybe Cambodia and Laos – will see certain strategic benefits in the erosion of U.S. power and authority that has resulted from this fracturing of the post-Cold War security order.
Threading together all of these factors, however, is a reflexive desire to remain neutral and non-committal – to avoid “choosing sides” – amid the increased strategic polarization that Moscow’s action is likely to provoke. With China expressing sympathy, if not open support, for the Russian action, and Western nations gearing up to wage economic war in retaliation for its invasion, few nations in Southeast Asia feel comfortable diverging, at least for now, from their comfortable position atop the fence.