International relations, National security | Southeast Asia

6 April 2022

Widely varying responses to the ongoing invasion of Ukraine among ASEAN countries highlights their varying relationships with – and dependence on – Russia, Lukas Singarimbun writes.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sparked international condemnation and led to the rapid imposition of sanctions on Russian entities by the United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union and others. However, the response of the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN) and most of its member states has been significantly more muted.

In February, ASEAN’s foreign ministers issued an official statement on the Ukrainian crisis. The representatives of 10 nations said that they are ‘deeply concerned’ with the ongoing crisis and avoided direct criticism of Russia. The official statement did not refer to Russia’s activity as an ‘invasion or ‘aggression’ towards Ukraine.

In early March, it issued a follow-up statement calling for ‘an immediate ceasefire’. Again, ASEAN fell short of naming Russia as the aggressor, leaving some analysts to describe the statement as vague and cautious.

The only ASEAN member imposing direct sanctions on Russia is Singapore. In contrast with its neighbours, Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan explained that Singapore plans to impose “appropriate sanctions and restrictions” against Russia. Singapore also aims to impose trade restrictions on materials that could be used as weapons to harm Ukrainians.

More on this: The AUKUS alliance and ASEAN’s waning centrality

Besides Singapore’s strong response, most ASEAN members’ responses have been very cautious.

Considering ASEAN nations’ professed commitment to always uphold international law, respect other nations’ sovereignty, and the organisation’s non-interference principle, this response has come as a surprise.

This caution may stem from many ASEAN countries’ relations with Russia, both economically and militarily.

Myanmar’s new regime for instance, relies on Russia’s weapons to maintain military control. According to a report by United Nations Special Rapporteur Tom Andrews, Russia has become a leading supplier of weapons to Myanmar’s military regime.

Vietnam too depends on Russia’s military commitment to the region – in its case to counterbalance China’s increasing aggression in the South China Sea. Vietnam’s response urged ‘all parties’ to resolve the conflict through diplomatic means.

More on this: Russia's war on Ukraine

In its statement, Indonesia condemned the attack on Ukraine, but did not mention Russia as the aggressor, preferring also to call on ‘all parties’ to cease hostilities. Indonesia and Russia’s relations militarily and economically have warmed in recent times, and President Joko Widodo’s belief that Russia might play an important role in maintaining peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region may have contributed to the underwhelming response.

Most ASEAN countries are not risking their relationships with Russia despite the invasion of Ukraine. However, ASEAN members must be aware that an overly timid response may undermine their professed commitment to international law principles.

It is crucial for small and medium powers to support the principles of sovereignty and international law through all possible diplomatic actions. For small and medium powers that primarily rely on diplomacy, international law and other norms are crucial instruments of foreign policy. They must speak out against such territorial aggression to protect those norms.

Despite their dependence on Russia, ASEAN nations should express their concern freely. Further, ASEAN nations should exercise all possible diplomatic actions to ensure sovereignty and international law principles are fully protected by all nations.

Russian President Vladimir Putin justified the attack saying that Ukraine never had a tradition of “real statehood”. Any leader in Southeast Asia, when they look to their own region, should hear deafening alarm bells in the wake of a statement like that.

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One Response

  1. Colin Anderson says:

    Asean countries can’t even help resolve the situation in Myanmar. They have just shown how effective they are as a geopolitical bloc.

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