Explained: Southeast Asia's muted response to the Ukraine conflict

Aside from reprimanding Moscow at the U.N., many countries have offered lukewarm responses to the invasion of Ukraine.

Published : Mar 08, 2022 16:21 IST

The response from Southeast Asian governments to Russian invasion has been diverse — and, some say, muted.

The response from Southeast Asian governments to Russian invasion has been diverse — and, some say, muted.

Almost two weeks into the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the response from other parts of the world is being called into question. On March 2, nine of the 11 Southeast Asian states voted for a U.N. General Assembly resolution reprimanding Moscow for its invasion and calling for peace. Vietnam and Laos, two historic partners of Russia, abstained.

Aside from the casting of diplomatic votes, however, the response from Southeast Asian governments has been diverse — and, some say, muted. Singapore made the rare decision to impose sanctions on Russia, and Indonesia quickly criticized the actions of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Philippines, a U.S. treaty ally, flip-flopped and described itself as neutral. Meanwhile, Thailand and Malaysia have remained quiet.

Russia seen as major trade partner

Many regional leaders have called for peace but have tried not to take sides in the conflict. Russia is the ninth largest trading partner of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which is a possible reason that some leaders have chosen not to criticize Moscow. More importantly, Russia is the region's biggest arms supplier, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

More than 80 per cent of Vietnamese military equipment has been provided by Russia since 2000. Moscow has also sold weapons to Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines, while it is one of the main providers of munitions to the military junta that took power in Myanmar in February 2021. Last December, Jakarta hosted the first Russia-ASEAN joint maritime exercise.

Zachary Abuza, a professor at the National War College in the United States, said the military angle could be overstated. Most of Russia's arms exports are concentrated in Vietnam and Myanmar, he noted, and sales to other regional states have failed to expand as Moscow hoped. "There are a lot of one-off deals," Abuza said. Instead, he points to other explanations. Sections of the Southeast Asian political elite look up to Putin as a strong leader who has railed against a U.S.-led world order, he said. The outgoing Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte, has hailed Putin as his "favorite hero." Last year, Cambodia's prime minister, Hun Sen, awarded the Russian leader with an "Order of Friendship."

Aversion to 'meddling' in distant affairs

According to some analysts, Southeast Asian governments don't want to frustrate China, which so far has offered a cryptic response to the Ukraine war. Several Southeast Asian states are in competition with Beijing over disputed territory in the South China Sea, and the region is not keen to escalate the U.S.-China rivalry.

But Shada Islam, a Brussels-based commentator on Asian international relations, reckons the response is less to do with China than with "the region's traditional wariness of meddling in other countries' affairs," especially over what appears to some to be a distant crisis in eastern Europe. Days after the invasion, the Philippines Defense Secretary, Delfin Lorenzana, said, "it's none of our business to meddle in whatever they're doing in Europe." The U.S. and the European countries "are disappointed and a bit confused about this and are hoping they can convince [Southeast Asian governments] to change their minds," Islam said.

For decades, Southeast Asian governments have taken a strict policy of non-interference in any other country's affairs — the so-called "ASEAN Way." Cracks appeared to be forming in this position, though, after several regional governments took a tough line by disinviting Myanmar's military junta from regional summits last year. Joel Ng, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, called it "disappointing" that Southeast Asian states aren't defending the principle of non-interference "more vigorously." According to Ng, most of the governments have gone as far as they want to in this crisis. They will have to comply with Western sanctions on Russia, but he reckons it's very unlikely others will join Singapore in imposing their own unilateral measures against Moscow.

There also appears to be much debate about why the war in Ukraine started in the first place, with viewpoints often influenced by national sensitivities. According to the latest State of Southeast Asia survey, published last month by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, opinions are split between the U.S. and China, but the majority of Southeast Asians are determined not to be dragged into the orbit of either superpower. "While against Russia's use of military force toward civilians and the violation of Ukraine's sovereignty, the regional countries should also speak up on the root cause of the war: the extension of NATO to Eastern Europe that provokes Russian insecurity," argued Evi Fitriani, a professor of International Relations at Universitas Indonesia.

Crítics call for sharper response

Yet there is also recognition that not criticizing Putin's motives in Ukraine — where the war threatens to make a mockery of international law and is also testing Western resolve to defend the sovereignty of smaller states — could have a direct impact on Southeast Asian themselves. "Unless we, as a country, stand up for principles that are the very foundation for the independence and sovereignty of smaller nations, our own right to exist and prosper as a nation may similarly be called into question," Singapore's Foreign Minister, Vivian Balakrishnan, has said.

This, indeed, appears to be the dividing issue. For some, the war in Ukraine is a distant issue which Southeast Asians can do little to influence, and any involvement in would only bring unwanted difficulties upon themselves. For others, the Ukraine war has very real implications for the region. With the exception of Singapore, it is striking that "most states are in utter denial that Russia's justification for and invasion of Ukraine undermine core principles of international law and create very dangerous precedents,” said Abuza. "If Russia can make sweeping unilateral claims to the territory of a sovereign state based on cultural affinity and history, then what's to stop China from doing the same thing?" he added.

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