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The Russia-Ukraine War is ASEAN’s Latest Political Headache

09 Jun 2023
By Dr Andrea Passeri
2021 Special ASEAN Summit on Myanmar's coup d'état. Source:

The war in Ukraine turned the spotlight on ASEAN’s recurring intramural splits, which paved the way for the bloc’s muted and non-committal reaction to the Russian invasion. In fact, the emergence of similar fault lines is anything but a new occurrence for the Southeast Asian regional grouping.

The start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022 has confronted the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) with yet another political headache. To date, the member States have repeatedly failed to frame a shared assessment of the causes of the conflict, the repercussions it might have for the region, and the future of Russia-ASEAN ties.

Weakened by its internal cleavages, over the course of the following 16 months since the invasion ASEAN has produced three different statements on the war in Ukraine, each widely criticized for their vagueness and ambiguity. The documents most notably refrained from condemning Russia as the aggressor, while merely expressing the bloc’s concerns for the outbreak of the conflict, for which it calls on the relevant parties to exercise restraint. This adoption of such a low-profile response reflects the growing polarisation of views inside ASEAN on crucial strategic dilemmas. Prior to Russia’s invasion, these disagreements were most pronounced in its inability to play a proactive and constructive role in mitigating the Myanmar crisis and the South China Sea dispute. These dilemmas encompass the role and place of the regional bloc in the growing confrontation between the West and the Sino-Russian tandem, as well as the future of the “ASEAN Way” as an integration blueprint that strongly adheres to the principles of non-alignment, consensus-based decision-making, and non-interference in the domestic affairs of other countries.

On top of that, the Russia-Ukraine war has also exposed the divergent interests and perceptions of Southeast Asian states vis-à-vis Moscow and its economic influence in the region, which stems from its primacy as an arms supplier, particularly among Vietnam, Myanmar, and Indonesia. As a result of these conflicting priorities and agendas, the Russian invasion of Ukraine further split ASEAN, this time into four factions. The two extremes in these factions are embodied on one hand by Singapore and the Philippines, and, on the other, by Myanmar’s military junta. In line with their roles as US regional allies, Singapore and Manila have stood out among ASEAN countries as the firmest and most vocal critics of Vladimir Putin’s war. From their perspectives, Russia’s war of aggression against a sovereign state might further escalate other territorial disputes around the globe.

Singapore is also the only ASEAN member to join the Western sanction regime against the Russian Federation. These include the introduction of export controls on defense-related items that could assist the Kremlin’s war efforts, as well as the freezing of financial assets held in Singapore by a list of Russian banks.

On the opposite extreme, Myanmar’s posture on the Russia-Ukraine War embodies a unique case in Southeast Asia. Its military-installed government has gone as far as to express its utmost support for Moscow’s invasion, claiming that its actions are legitimate. The junta’s endorsement is a by-product of the diplomatic honeymoon enjoyed by the two sides in recent years, which has been further strengthened by burgeoning arms deals and their growing confrontation with the West.

For other ASEAN members, a far more muted and equidistant response has been the norm. Against this backdrop, it is possible to draw another dividing line between the approaches followed by Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, and the stances adopted by the remaining ASEAN members, namely Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, and Thailand. The three Indochinese states clearly lean more towards the Russian Federation for a number of reasons that include their historical ties with the Kremlin, Russia’s role as a key defense partner, and an equally deep-rooted sense of antipathy and distrust vis-à-vis a US-led global order.

As a result, the Russian narrative that depicts the war as an act of self-defence against Western expansion into Moscow’s sphere of influence has found a consensus in Cambodia and Laos. Meanwhile, Vietnam’s recalcitrance in criticising the Kremlin stems from its dependence on Russia for the provision of military hardware, with the latter accounting for more than 70 percent of Hanoi’s defense acquisitions. Vietnam may in fact be looking for other military hardware providers given the poor performance of Russian weapons on the battlefield. This is coupled with the risk that such imports may be targeted by US secondary sanctions.

The fourth subgroup comprising Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, and Thailand has endeavoured to project a strictly neutral stance on the conflict in Ukraine, consistent with the tradition of non-alignment amid great power rivalries that has historically informed their foreign policies. These countries have repeatedly abstained from the various resolutions inked at the UN General Assembly to address the escalation of violence that has characterised the first year of the Russia-Ukraine war. In a similar fashion, their governments have also carefully refrained from even mentioning the word “Russia” in their low-profile statements on the conflict, let alone indicating that the Putin regime has been the aggressor and is mainly responsible for the outbreak of the war.

Moreover, a series of surveys conducted among the citizens of these states illustrate that the Russian invasion is largely perceived as a distant conflict, except for its direct impact on raising the cost of food and everyday commodities. The predominant view shared by policymakers and ordinary people in countries like Malaysia is that ASEAN states should not pick sides or become entangled in a war that, in their opinion, has little strategic significance for Southeast Asia.

This myopic appraisal, however, significantly overlooks the fact that a Russian military victory in Ukraine obtained with the acquiescence of the international community might constitute a dangerous breach to a rule-based global order, prompting significant repercussions also in key regional hotspots such as the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea.

Andrea Passeri is Senior Lecturer at the Department of International and Strategic Studies, University Malaya, where he teaches International Relations theory. Prior to joining University Malaya, he served as Adjunct Professor at the Department of Political and Social Studies, University of Bologna (Italy). 

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.