Is ASEAN a toothless tiger in the face of Ukraine crisis?

By Joanne Lin, Lead Researcher, Political-Security Affairs, ASEAN Studies Centre – ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute,
and William Choong, Senior Fellow, ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute; Managing Editor, Fulcrum

ASEAN says that it is ‘deeply concerned’ about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but it has stopped short of condemning Moscow. The statement by the grouping reflects varied perspectives among member states. But it is important for smaller states in ASEAN to uphold the aegis of international law, write Joanne Lin and William Choong.

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, many countries in the international community, particularly the West, have condemned Russia’s actions. In contrast, ASEAN’s reaction looks relatively mild – and worrying.

Several countries are imposing severe sanctions on Russia including banning Russian banks from the SWIFT global payments system. They include the United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom, Australia, Japan, New Zealand and Taiwan. It is unlikely that the sanctions will cause Russia to rethink its actions in Ukraine. That said, the sanctions will impact the Russian economy, and make it clear that its actions in Ukraine are unacceptable.

To the credit of Cambodia, the current ASEAN chair, the grouping issued its own statement on Saturday. The statement said that ASEAN is ‘deeply concerned’ about the ‘evolving situation’ and ‘armed hostilities’ in Ukraine. It called on ‘all relevant parties to exercise maximum restraint’. It stressed the importance of key principles, as ‘mutual respect for sovereignty’, territorial integrity and ‘equal rights’ of all nations. However, ASEAN did not single out Russia or condemn its actions in Ukraine, given the clear violation of the aforesaid principles.

Given the serious nature of Russia’s actions in Ukraine — and the consequent implications on international law and the global order — ASEAN’s position is disappointing. For smaller ASEAN member states in the Indo-Pacific, which have become a duelling ground for China and the United States, it has become particularly important for the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity to be upheld. That said, ASEAN’s response is understandable if one examines the varied responses by individual member states.

Reactions by individual ASEAN countries fall into three groups. Singapore, Indonesia and Brunei have condemned Russia’s move. But the tenor of the language used varies. Singapore said it ‘strongly condemns any unprovoked invasion of a sovereign country under any pretext’. Indonesia couched its language carefully without condemning Russia directly. It said Indonesia condemns any action that ‘constitutes a violation of the territory and sovereignty of a country’. Brunei used a similar formulation.

The second group of ASEAN states — Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines — evinced less strident reactions. Vietnam, for example, referring to the United Nations Charter, emphasised the need for ‘self-restraint’ and ‘dialogue’, but it stopped short of condemning Russia’s actions. Malaysia Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob said he hoped that ‘the best possible peaceful settlement’ to ‘resolve the conflict’ could eventuate. The Philippines said it was not for Manila to ‘meddle’ in what is happening in Ukraine.

In the last group, Myanmar’s State Administration Council stood alone in supporting Russia’s actions. This is not surprising given that Russia is one of the few supporters of the junta regime.

Singapore said it will impose export controls on items that can be used as weapons in Ukraine. It will also block Russian banks and financial transactions connected to Russia. But it is unlikely that any other ASEAN countries will effect any sanctions on Russia. This reflects their bilateral ties with Russia, as well the values and principles each member holds.

It should be noted that trade between ASEAN states and Russia stood at only US$13.5 billion in 2020. Russia is the ninth-largest trading partner of ASEAN, ahead of only New Zealand. Consequently, Russia is less of a priority to Southeast Asian countries. The Philippines’ reaction echoes such a sentiment: that Southeast Asia is located far away from Europe and Manila has less reason to intervene in the Russia-Ukraine conflict (conversely, it can be argued that if a similar conflict occurred in its backyard, ASEAN’s reaction would, theoretically at least, be stronger).

ASEAN countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand appear to be more concerned about evacuating their citizens out of Ukraine. Some ASEAN states may also rue the economic impact of the crisis, given the sanctions on Russia in place, the disruption to supply chains and the rise in fuel prices.

It also appears that national interests play an important role in the way individual ASEAN states have responded. For countries such as Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Myanmar, Russia is an important arms supplier. Vietnam, in particular, has a long-standing relationship with Russia going back to the Cold War. As such, it has been careful not to antagonise Moscow.

Still, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a clear violation of international law and holds lessons for Southeast Asia. ASEAN’s raison d’etre is to promote regional peace and stability through respect for justice and the rule of law. Furthermore, key principles such as respect for independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as the right of every state to maintain its existence free from external interference or coercion is enshrined in the ASEAN Charter, the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC), the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific and many other key ASEAN documents. Thus, any attempts that violate these principles will cut to the core of Southeast Asian security and prosperity.

Fundamentally, smaller ASEAN countries should not risk forgoing the protection provided by international law. President Putin justified the attack by saying that Ukraine ‘never had a tradition of genuine statehood’. Such justification should sound alarm bells in Southeast Asia, considering that many ASEAN countries only gained independence less than a century ago. Imagine if China were to forcibly take over South China Sea islets occupied by disputant states such as Malaysia and Vietnam, and argue that they never had a valid claim to them. How would the other ASEAN states react?

The Ukraine crisis may be far away and the world is not expecting ASEAN’s statement to have any impact on the crisis. However, the fundamental message that ASEAN appears to be conveying is that national interests of individual member states prevail over ASEAN’s principles and values. Sometimes, it is not about what has been said, it is also about what is not said. It is paramount for ASEAN as a grouping of smaller states to hold up the aegis of international law and stress the need to respect individual countries’ sovereignty and territory.

Joanne Lin is Lead Researcher in Political-Security affairs at the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute.
Dr William Choong is a Senior Fellow at the ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute and Managing Editor at Fulcrum.

Banner image: Cambodian PM Hun Sen meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the 2016 Russia-ASEAN Summit, Sochi, Russia - May 19, 2016. Credit: Kremlin.

This article originally appeared on the ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute's Fulcrum on March 1, 2022.