Calling for diplomacy and dialogue . . .
On Saturday, ASEAN’s 10 member states issued a terse statement, expressing “deep concern” over “armed hostilities” in Ukraine and calling for both sides to “pursue dialogue” seeking an end to violence in accordance with international law. The statement adheres firmly to ASEAN’s long-running stance of diplomatic caution and non-interference. Nonetheless, ASEAN members and others in the region have diverged in their responses to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Singapore most forcefully condemned the “unprovoked invasion of a sovereign state,” and Timor-Leste supported a draft UN resolution to end Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. While deploring the violence and calling for negotiation, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines focused on the safety of their citizens in Eastern Europe. Myanmar’s military junta, meanwhile, referred to Russia’s invasion as appropriate to defend its sovereignty.
Beyond traditional ASEAN caution . . .
ASEAN’s official moderate response and aversion to directly naming or criticizing Russia likely stems from economic and national security concerns. Russia’s trade with Southeast Asia is scant – accounting for less than one per cent of ASEAN’s total merchandise trade in 2020. But economies like Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam boast significant trade surpluses with Moscow and may seek to protect such trade advantages to further pandemic economic recovery. Russia is also a key defence supplier for the region, with Vietnam and Myanmar its top customers. U.S. and other international sanctions threaten Russian arms sales to Southeast Asia, as buyers could face repercussions for dealing with Russia. Cutting off the Russian defence supply would also disrupt Southeast Asia’s access to needed parts to maintain current Moscow-made military equipment.
Remote conflict strikes a chord at home . . .
The Ukrainian crisis is a flashpoint of geopolitical tensions reminiscent of the Cold War. In this context, Southeast Asia walking the line between criticism and self-protection may be reasonable, especially considering how the Cold War ran catastrophically hot throughout much of Southeast Asia. Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine may also set a dangerous precedent for Southeast Asian states that depend on international law to protect their sovereignty and statehood, especially vis-à-vis the heavily disputed South China Sea.