PRAGUE & SINGAPORE – Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “shock and awe” invasion of neighboring Ukraine, the biggest attack on a European state since World War II, has been met with condemnation from global democracies for the dangerous new precedent being set by Moscow.
Yet in Southeast Asia, a region where non-interference in the internal affairs of other nations is sacrosanct among democrats and autocrats alike, governments have been reticent to issue strong statements on the fast-moving developments in Eastern Europe as invading Russian forces attempt to encircle the Ukrainian capital of Kiev.
Singapore, both the region’s smallest state and its most outspoken thus far, sees the unfolding security crisis as a stark reminder that sovereignty, independence and adherence to international law are not to be taken for granted, with its foreign affairs ministry condemning “any unprovoked invasion of a sovereign country under any pretext.”
The city-state reiterated its stance that “the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine must be respected,” a position that it alone took in the region after the Kremlin recognized Donetsk and Luhansk, breakaway territories in eastern Ukraine held by pro-Russian separatists, as “independent” states on February 21.
With the “special military operation” ordered by Putin three days later plainly proving by the hour to be a far more violent and incendiary military action than initial expectations of a more limited armed intervention in eastern Ukraine to bolster separatist territories, more Southeast Asian capitals have begun to weigh in on the situation.
Indonesia’s foreign ministry said in a statement that Jakarta was concerned about “the escalation of the armed conflict in Ukraine” and condemned any action that violates a state’s sovereignty and territorial integrity while calling for negotiations and diplomacy to seek peaceful resolution to the fast-escalating conflict.
“Stop the war. War brings misery to mankind and puts the whole world at risk,” said Indonesian President Joko Widodo on Twitter, without referring to Russia or Ukraine. The leader of Southeast Asia’s largest democracy had earlier this week urged restraint and said that “war must not happen” over Ukraine.
But with war in Europe now the new reality, a development that analysts say could have far-reaching implications on financial and energy markets and cause disruptions in trade and supply chains that impact post-pandemic economic recoveries, questions are rising about how the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will respond going forward.
“Witnessing a nuclear state attack its neighbor, issue threats to the international community, single-handedly overturn regional security order and do so on a fabricated pretext, must send chills down the spines of leaders and citizens in any part of the world, not only in Southeast Asia,” said Igor Driesmans, the European Union’s ambassador to ASEAN.
“These developments cannot and must not be ignored,” he told Asia Times. “Global order and multilateralism are currently under serious threat and I hope that Southeast Asia will join us in rejecting inexcusable and senseless violence and destruction.”
The immediate focus of Southeast Asian governments has been the evacuation and repatriation of their nationals in Ukraine, a process that embassies have already begun as the region’s diplomatic representatives prepare for a UN General Assembly vote on a US-drafted resolution condemning Russia’s actions expected in the coming days.
Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia, which is ASEAN’s incumbent chair, told local media in Phnom Penh on February 24 that “ASEAN needs a strong voice. Therefore, any statement to be issued should have the consensus of ASEAN including on the Ukraine-Russia issue,” adding that developments were “very concerning to us.”
Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob, who was on an official visit to Cambodia, told reporters that his government’s priority was to repatriate its citizens and that “Malaysia hopes that the best possible peaceful settlement between Ukraine and Russia can be reached soon, and subsequently successfully resolve the conflict.”
The Philippines has said its main concern was the safety of Filipinos in Ukraine, who according to Manila have been allowed to evacuate to neighboring Poland even without holding EU visas. Thailand said it was following the developments in Ukraine “with deep concern” and would arrange transport for Thai evacuees.
Vietnam, Moscow’s closest defense partner in Southeast Asia and the region’s largest buyer of Russian military equipment, issued a passive response to the invasion, offering no substantive comment besides calling on “relevant sides to practice self-restraint, step up dialogue efforts and promote diplomatic measures” to end the conflict.
Russia is Southeast Asia’s leading arms supplier, with over US$10.7 billion in defense equipment sales to regional states from 2000 to 2019, more than the United States. But neither Moscow nor Kiev are major investors in Southeast Asia. Russia’s trade was only worth $18.2 billion in 2019, making it the bloc’s ninth-largest outside trading partner.
“Although most Southeast Asian countries have relatively small trade volumes with Russia, many of them deal heavily with Russia in one sector, namely the purchase of heavy weaponry such as fighter jets,” says Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.
Therefore, condemnations of Russia’s actions, however mild, could jeopardize their relations with Russia, “and maintenance and spare parts availability for these weaponry may then land into trouble,” he added in relation to high-end Russian-made advanced fighter aircraft and submarines relied upon by many regional air forces and navies.
Joshua Kurlantzick, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, said he doesn’t expect much of a reaction from beyond pro forma calls for peace and mediation. “Southeast Asian states have little role to play here, and so I think they’ll make general calls for peace or mostly stay quiet,” he told Asia Times.
Elina Noor, director for political-security affairs and deputy director at the Asia Society Policy Institute in Washington DC, said the muted response from governments in Southeast Asia was “unsurprising” as regional authorities would likely wait for a clearer assessment of the situation before releasing statements.
“Geographically, the crisis is a distant one for many Southeast Asian countries that have far more pressing and immediate problems to deal with i.e. Covid and reviving their domestic economies; and having to balance trade, defense ties with Russia as well as with other major powers,” Noor told Asia Times.
Others in the region say events in Ukraine are highly consequential to Southeast Asia, particularly with the security crisis in Europe threatening to divert the attention and resources of the Biden administration away from its Indo-Pacific strategy, which aims at countering strategic concerns about China shared by many ASEAN members.
“If such naked aggression does not galvanize the region to condemn Russia in no uncertain terms, I don’t know what would. So the response from the region and elsewhere must be unequivocal,” said Eugene Tan, an associate law professor at the Singapore Management University.
“Southeast Asian countries cannot afford to collectively bury their heads in the sand and assume that this is a matter for the US and its allies to deal with. The invasion is an affront to international law and the rule of law,” Tan added. “We can expect some response from the region; the question is what sort of response and to what end.”
The erosion of sovereignty and undermining of international law were high priority concerns for most respondents in the latest State of Southeast Asia survey report published last week by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, wherein 61.5% of respondents voiced concern over ASEAN becoming an arena for major power competition.
Indeed, with several regional countries, particularly Vietnam and the Philippines, having claimed that Chinese aggression in the South China Sea represents a violation of their own sovereignty, observers say ASEAN governments should be concerned that a major power could launch a full-scale invasion of a neighbor even in the face of a united Western response.
Academic Tan described Southeast Asia’s muted response as “puzzling” and said the region “must now stand up and do the right thing including fully supporting, without fear or favor at regional and international fora, efforts to condemn and even punish Russia and Belarus,” citing reports of Russian troops entering Ukraine from Belarusian territory.
“There is no room to pay lip service to the norms of sovereignty and mutual non-interference. Time is of the essence and much is at stake. Southeast Asia would be in peril if the law of the jungle is to become ascendent because the domino effect of such a transgression can be devastating on Southeast Asia,” he told Asia Times.