The crisis in Ukraine has exposed how the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – once again – is divided as it fails to confront a pressing security challenge head on and through a forceful and unified voice.
Already riddled with divisions over Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, the damming of the Mekong, the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya, and the 2021 coup d’êtat in Myanmar, ASEAN, through its toothless response to the Russian invasion, yet again is proving inept in collectively addressing a security issue with potential implications for Southeast Asia.
One would think that with the exception of Myanmar, whose junta totally relies on Moscow for arms and diplomatic support, that Southeast Asian condemnation of Russia would not be so fraught.
At the member-state level, the responses to Ukraine have ranged from Myanmar’s unabashed endorsement of the invasion to more tepid ones from other ASEAN states, and to remarkably forceful ones issued by the city-state of Singapore.
The response from Myanmar was beyond the pale, with the ruling generals stating that “Russia’s invasion is an appropriate measure to preserve its sovereignty.”
In failing to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, most Southeast Asian states are acting in a way that ignores their long-term security interests – and, for the most part, out of sheer diplomatic timidity.
Southeast Asia is comprised of small and medium-sized states who rely on international law, the doctrine of sovereign equality and the principles on the United Nations that forbid the use of force to alter borders or interfere in the domestic politics of another sovereign state.
Russia’s actions and justification for war have set a very dangerous precedent. That’s pretty cut and dry. And yet, the ASEAN states have largely equivocated, each for its own reason.
Singapore has been far ahead of the rest of its partners in the bloc. It immediately condemned Russia’s attack on Ukraine. The Lion City has since announced a swath of sanctions, including banking, SWIFT correspondence, the freeze on high-tech exports and travel bans. It remains to be seen if Singapore’s sovereign wealth funds will follow the lead of Norway and divest themselves of Russian assets.
Singaporean Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan has made clear what’s really at stake in the crisis on the other side of the globe.
“We cannot accept one country attacking another without justification, arguing that its independence was the result of ‘historical errors and crazy decisions’ … Unless we as a country stand up for principles that are the very foundations for the independence and sovereignty of smaller nations, our own right to exist and prosper as a nation may similarly be called into question,” he said.
Brunei and the Philippines belatedly condemned the attack. Indonesia has done so in its own way without assigning blame to Russia, and making clear that it would not impose any sanctions on Moscow.
A joint statement put out by the ASEAN foreign ministers on Feb. 28 made no mention of Russia’s invasion of a sovereign state, let alone its targeting of civilians and effort to capture Ukraine’s main cities. The statement called on both sides to “exercise maximum restraint,” ignoring that one side was fighting for its very existence as a sovereign state. This was an exercise in diplomatic cowardice.
As with the coup in Myanmar, many governments in Southeast Asia expected the invasion of Ukraine to be over in a blink, too fast for them to be forced to make a stand. But that hasn’t happened.
President Vladimir Putin planned a blitzkrieg attack, the quick encirclement of cities and an immediate Ukrainian government surrender. The Russians never expected the Ukrainians to put up such stiff resistance or the international community to be galvanized in norm-shattering ways.
While the Ukrainians have fared relatively well in the opening days of the war, the Russians have been changing their tactics: they are moving more deliberately and their supply lines are tighter. They’re aware that the losses suffered thus far are unsustainable.
More importantly, Russian forces and mercenaries are now targeting residential areas and other non-military targets in a much more systematic way, including government buildings, hospitals, and communications centers, according to news reports.
Air power, which Moscow barely resorted to in the early days of the invasion, is being used more and more as the Russians deplete their supply of precision-guided munitions. The Russians are now using gravity bombs, cluster munitions and thermobaric bombs, greatly increasing the likelihood of civilian casualties.
Putin has no shortage of men and equipment that he will throw at Ukraine to install a neutralized vassal state. Body bags returning home do not particularly affect him. This is going to be a long drawn-out conflict.
Of course, all of this has a bearing on China. Beijing continues to back Moscow, despite some apparent misgivings as the war threatens to be a bloody affair, and one that is roiling international energy markets.
Beijing agrees that Ukraine is a sovereign state, but it also agrees that the European country has limited sovereignty because of choices it has made and Russia’s “legitimate security concerns.”
Beijing has clearly betrayed its oft-stated commitment to the inviolability of state sovereignty, something that all countries in Southeast Asia should note. Through speaking out of both sides of its mouth and through its actions, China has thoroughly embraced Russia’s doctrine of limited sovereignty.
China also blames the war on Washington and Brussels with their “Cold War mentality.”
It has promised to maintain normal trade with Russia and will not support international sanctions on Moscow. With Russia being forced out of the SWIFT financial network, Russia will become more dependent on the Chinese-run alternative, the Cross-Border Interbank Payment System, though it will force Russia to rapidly increase the amount of Chinese yuan that it uses in trade.
The liberal international order
The countries in Southeast Asia, meanwhile, must be prepared for a conflict in Ukraine that will last years. They need to understand that Russia is willing to raze entire cities so President Vladimir Putin does not have to humiliatingly seek a negotiated settlement.
States have to be sober in their assessment that, having entered this conflict with maximalist aims, there is no off-ramp for Putin, who is far more likely to escalate the conflict than accept defeat.
Which is why Southeast Asia’s equivocation is so baffling.
The international response to Russia’s illegal invasion should remind everyone why President Vladimir Putin hated and feared the liberal international order so much, and reinforce why it is in the interest of Southeast Asian states to begin to act in ways that support their long-term security.
Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College in Washington and an adjunct at Georgetown University.