Should ASEAN Take a Stronger Position on the Ukraine War?

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ASEAN Beat | Diplomacy | Southeast Asia

Should ASEAN Take a Stronger Position on the Ukraine War?

ASEAN and its individual member states have mostly avoided taking a strong stance on the conflict. Is that a sign of weakness, or a smart diplomatic move?

Should ASEAN Take a Stronger Position on the Ukraine War?
Credit: Depositphotos

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022 has been widely condemned by the governments of the “political West.” By contrast, two-thirds of the world’s population lives in states that have been either neutral or even Russia-leaning in this war. The vast majority of members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are in that group.

In an ongoing, soon-to-be published research project, we found that most Southeast Asian governments have refused to side with the West in condemning and diplomatically isolating Moscow. Some observers have argued that ASEAN and its member states ought to take a stronger stand against Russia’s obvious violation of international law. But should it? Facts first.

Southeast Asia’s Bilateral Response

Singapore is the only ASEAN member state that repeatedly condemned Russia’s war and called it both illegal and unprovoked, including in international fora which other ASEAN member states attended. Furthermore, for the first time in over four decades, Singapore imposed unilateral sanctions on another country.

On the other extreme end of the response spectrum is Myanmar, which lent the Kremlin its full support, calling the invasion “justified” as Russia was protecting “their country’s sovereignty” – though it should be pointed out that this is the position of the military junta, the de facto government in Myanmar (SAC), not the National Unity Government of elected leaders, which condemned Russia.

All other ASEAN member states are somewhere in between. Indonesia, and to some extent Vietnam, attempted to play a mediating role between Russia and Ukraine while treading a cautious line between condemning war and not assigning blame to Russia. Most, however, remain impassive, even indifferent.

Interestingly, Cambodia is the ASEAN member state that comes closest to Singapore, albeit in rhetoric only. Prime Minister Hun Sen articulated his outrage and was the only ASEAN leader to join Singapore in stating that his country would not be neutral in this conflict.

On balance, however, Southeast Asia remains very reserved and the ASEAN member states’ reaction to the Ukraine war stand in stark contrast to the very strong positions taken by Western governments (and Singapore).

Southeast Asia’s Multilateral Response

Many have pointed out ASEAN’s lack of unity on international and even subregional issues, which in combination with ASEAN’s diplomatic tradition of consensus among all member states complicates a strong ASEAN statement or cooperation at the United Nations. At the U.N.-level, however, voting alignment is often strong – though this tends to be coincidental overlap of national interest rather than diplomatic cohesion. Eight of the 10 ASEAN member states voted in favor of the U.N. General Assembly resolution ES-11/1, condemning Russian aggression against Ukraine. Vietnam and Laos abstained; Myanmar, represented at the U.N. by the NUG, not the de facto SAC government, also supported ES-11/1.

At the ASEAN level, statements tend to be weak and clouded in subtly balanced diplomatic rhetoric to achieve consensus among divergent states. At various occasions, the statements issued share three common characteristics: first, stressing the need for a peaceful resolution and humanitarian assistance; second, support for international law and principles as specified in ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC), to which Russia is a party; and third, despite invoking the TAC, no ASEAN statement explicitly condemns Russia or its aggression. Neither does ASEAN identify Ukraine as the victim, merely as the place where this war occurs.

Should ASEAN Take a Stronger Stand?

The national positions among ASEAN member states are diverse. However, ASEAN is sensitive to both the view of more forward-leaning members, such as Singapore, as well as its international reputation, especially with its Western dialogue partners. This means that ASEAN leaders must strike a balance on the basis of a weak compromise while finding some convergence with international demands. This balancing act is reflected in ASEAN’s institutional position on the Ukraine war, fueling the endless debate as to ASEAN’s effectiveness.

From ASEAN’s point of view, it is desirable to take a strong stand against the Russian invasion? There are sound arguments on both sides.

The most compelling reason for ASEAN to take a strong position on the war, one that should theoretically unite all member states, is the integrity of international rules and norms. Moscow violated all the norms of ASEAN’s TAC, including sovereignty, territorial integrity, and non-violence. Shielding the relatively smaller states of Southeast Asia from capricious “might is right” politics was a fundamental reason behind ASEAN’s founding and remains as important as ever. Indeed, numerous observers have cautioned that Russian aggression might embolden China’s future behavior in Asia.

Norm violation aside, the Moscow’s pseudo-historical claim to Ukrainian territory and the ostensible protection of ethnic Russians living there set a terrible precedent from a Southeast Asian perspective. Multi-ethnic ASEAN member states, with sizable populations of ethnic Chinese minorities, and  South China Sea claimant states, which struggle with China’s claim to “historical rights,” there sum up to almost all ASEAN member states.

On the ledger’s other side, ASEAN’s primary responsibility is not European security and ASEAN is already occupied with many internal and external challenges ranging from the 2021 Myanmar coup, intensifying China-U.S. competition, and managing multifaceted and sometimes difficult relations among very diverse members. As such, while the war in Ukraine does impact Southeast Asia – as all global wars do – ASEAN has neither a direct stake nor the capabilities, much less a responsibility, to influence the outcomes in Ukraine.

Second, while there have been great examples of ASEAN unity on international crises, the Ukraine war is not going to be one of them. By adopting a strong position on an issue of secondary relevance, ASEAN would open another can of worms that might expose its disunity, further tarnishing its global image.

Lastly, there are intrinsic problems associated with taking a “principled stand.” Principles are absolute and justifying a certain position as being based on principle mandates consistency; otherwise it is not principled but arbitrary. Whenever there are serious breaches of the U.N. Charter or other pieces of international law, particularly on state sovereignty, a similar reaction becomes necessary and equally strong statements will henceforth be expected. Such a policy leaves less room for flexibility in the future, and, generally, Southeast Asian diplomats do not like being boxed in.

Both cases are compelling, and different observers will reach different conclusions. On balance, however, ASEAN would not gain much from taking a strong position on a war on whose outcome it realistically has little influence. This would only further complicate internal diplomacy and limit future policy options.

Instead, ASEAN should invoke its diplomatic tradition of impartiality and inclusiveness, which are the strengths of ASEAN-based multilateralism. ASEAN should continue to facilitate inclusive great power dialogue, which is all too rare. In case of divergent perspectives, internally as well as among its dialogue partners – including China, the United States, and Russia – ASEAN best functions as a bridge-builder in facilitating an exchange of views among leaders rather than upholding international law, much less conflict resolution.