ASEAN members are less inclined to pick a trade fight with China than Western nations. Photo: Agencies

SINGAPORE, BANGKOK and PRAGUE — Singapore and Indonesia are so far the only Southeast Asian states to openly condemn Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, with the wealthy city-state going as far as to announce sanctions on Moscow earlier this week. 

For the most part, however, analysts reckon most of the region’s governments will aim to keep a low profile amid the conflict, sensitive to not frustrating either their Western partners or Russia, a key provider of hardware and weapons to many Southeast Asian militaries. 

Neither will they want a war in eastern Europe to exacerbate tensions with China closer to home, especially since there are fears Beijing could leverage the global distraction of Ukraine to amplify its aggression in the contested South China Sea, where Beijing is locked in territorial disputes with several Southeast Asian states. 

It will be a tricky balance for many to strike at a moment regional states are being pressed by the West to take diplomatic sides.

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha’s elected but military-influenced government has announced his elected but military government will maintain its “neutrality” in the conflict, despite coming under pressure from 25 Bangkok-based ambassadors to speak out against the invasion.

Vietnam, caught between alliances with Moscow and the West, took a middling position through its UN representative Dang Hoang Giang for “an end to the use of force” and “efforts for a lasting solution” during an emergency session of the UN General Assembly on Tuesday, according to the Vietnam News Agency.

Military-run Myanmar has been an extreme outlier, with junta spokesman Zaw Min Tun saying Russia’s actions were “the right thing to do for Russia to consolidate its sovereignty” and that Moscow was “showing the world that it stands as a powerful nation in the global balance of world peace.”

Myanmar’s coup maker Senior General Min Aung Hlaing attends the 9th Moscow Conference on International Security in Moscow, Russia on June 23, 2021. Photo: AFP via Anadolu Agency / Sefa Karacan

To be sure, the war is already having vast geopolitical ramifications and could lead to a more assertive and wider chasm between the world’s democratic and autocratic regimes, a notable concern for Southeast Asia where democracy has been in decline in recent years. 

On the eve of the Russian invasion — an attack by an authoritarian state on a democratic nation — many pundits opined that Western democracies were frail and bitterly divided, that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) defense pact was a relic of the past, and that public confidence in democracy-building abroad had collapsed. 

There are numbers to back up certain of those assessments. For instance, only a fifth of Americans regards democracy promotion as a top foreign policy objective, putting it at the bottom of a list of 20 choices, according to a Pew Research Center survey published last March.  

US President Joe Biden spoke a good game during his election campaign about restoring democracy-building as a key tenet of US foreign policy, after his predecessor, Donald Trump, focused instead on cementing alliances, often in transactional fashion, and tackling trade imbalances. 

But Biden’s Summit For Democracy last December was derided for not inviting some key US allies, such as the Philippines, while inviting governments with questionable human rights records, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

Other analysts have questioned how Biden intends to force other governments to democratize when his administration often appears as isolationist as his predecessor Trump’s, a key talking point after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan last year. 

But just days into the war in Ukraine, there are already signs that Russia’s invasion has exacerbated the divide between democratic and authoritarian worlds. The conflict, some think, will now stiffen the democratic world’s resolve against the threat posed by autocratic regimes.

“In the centuries-long struggle between autocracy and democracy, between dictatorship and freedom, Ukraine is now the front line — and our front line too,” Anne Applebaum, an American journalist and historian, wrote recently. Yascha Mounk, a German-American political scientist, called the invasion “the beginning of a new era of naked power politics.” 

Another commentary piece from last weekend put it: “If the entire point of the Summit for Democracy is to protect democracy, Ukraine should be the rallying cry to make good on the commitment.”

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha is a former army chief and mastermind of the 2014 coup that brought military rule back to Thailand for five years. He has fostered strong ties to Russia under both of his governments. Credit: File photo.

Regarding Southeast Asia, “the war in Ukraine should be a wake-up call for the EU and the US,” says Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division. 

“Playing footsie with authoritarian regimes in Southeast Asia not only betrays the democratic aspirations of those being repressed but also encourages irresponsible, unaccountable behavior, like that demonstrated by the Myanmar military launching a coup in February 2021,” Robertson added.

As the crisis ensues in Myanmar, other countries in the region have also seen a collapse in political freedoms. Cambodia’s ruling party has grown increasingly autocratic since 2017, when it forcibly dissolved its only viable political rival. Repression has been ratcheted up against pro-democracy and other dissidents by Vietnam and Laos’ ruling communist parties. 

Timor-Leste, not yet a member of the ASEAN bloc, was the only Southeast Asian country to be ranked “free” by Freedom House in its 2021 edition of Freedom in the World index. Others have seen a gradual worsening of their scores in recent editions of the study.  

“The one consistent thread that runs through the region’s downward spiral on rights is that leaders like Hun Sen, Prayut Chan-ocha, Rodrigo Duterte, and Vietnam’s ruling communist troika are convinced that they are untouchable and can get away with crushing democratic norms and silencing civil society activists,” Robertson said. 

“By attempting to curry favor with these regimes rather than strongly criticize and sanction their misdeeds, the EU and the US enable the kind of rights-violating impunity that favor closer ties and support from the likes of Russia and China.”

The widening chasm between democratic and authoritarian worlds — as well as the apparent increased resolve by democracies to now properly understand the threat posed to the wider world order by autocratic regimes following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — could lead to major changes in how democracies respond to authoritarian actors in the coming years. 

One consequence could be greater resolve by democracies to unite in how they impose sanctions on authoritarian governments, especially considering that certain Russian banks have now been cut off from the SWIFT international payment system, a response many thought the US and EU nations would not be able to agree on. 

Another could be greater distrust of authoritarian leaders. Despite Western intelligence saying for weeks that they believed Putin would launch an invasion of Ukraine, there appeared to be much uncertainty in Western capitals, with many believing that Putin is a “rational actor” and an invasion would be an irrational action.   

Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s government moved quickly to impose sanctions on Russia. Image: Twitter

However, not everyone thinks that viewing the world through a democracy versus autocracy lens would be beneficial. According to Hunter Marston, a researcher on Southeast Asia at the Australian National University, the West should not frame current events in Ukraine as an existential battle between democracy and authoritarianism. 

Instead, when parlaying with regions like Southeast Asia they should emphasize respect for the rule of law and freedom from coercion, ideas more in line with the Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific Strategy and Trump’s previous Free and Open Indo-Pacific policy. 

Indeed, the US and EU would likely find it easier to bring Southeast Asians on board by framing the Ukraine war as a crisis of national sovereignty and international law – two issues of paramount importance to the region’s opinion-makers – according to the recently published State of Southeast Asia survey by Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. 

“Southeast Asian states will be more receptive to notions of territorial sovereignty as well, and this will be less of a dividing line amongst them,” Marston said.