ASEAN Countries’ Responses to Russian Aggression in Ukraine Vary Across the Spectrum

ASEAN Countries’ Responses to Russian Aggression in Ukraine Vary Across the Spectrum
Ukrainian service members look for and collect unexploded shells after a fighting with Russian raiding group in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv in the morning of Feb. 26, 2022. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images)

On Feb. 26, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) released a statement regarding the situation in Ukraine. Without naming Russia, the foreign ministers of the ten member states said they were “deeply concerned over the evolving situation and armed hostilities in Ukraine.”

“We call on all relevant parties to exercise maximum restraint and make utmost efforts to pursue dialogues through all channels … to de-escalate tensions, and seek peaceful resolution in accordance with international law, the principles of the United Nations Charter and the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia,” they said.

“For peace, security, and harmonious co-existence to prevail, it is the responsibility of all parties to uphold the principles of mutual respect for the sovereignty, territorial integrity and equal rights of all nations,” the statement went.

The individual responses from ASEAN’s member states varied across the spectrum.

The strongest response was from Singapore.

‘Uphold Principles’ Instead of ‘Choosing Sides’

In a ministerial statement made before Singapore’s parliament on Feb. 28, the country’s minister for foreign affairs Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan announced that Singapore would join other countries in imposing sanctions and restrictions against Russia.

“Singapore has always complied fully with sanctions and decisions of the U.N. Security Council, but we have rarely acted to impose sanctions on other countries in the absence of binding Security Council decisions or directions,” Balakrishnan said.

But given the “unprecedented gravity of the Russian attack on Ukraine, and the unsurprising veto by Russia of a draft Security Council resolution,” Singapore would impose export controls on “items that can be used directly as weapons in Ukraine to inflict harm or to subjugate the Ukrainians.”

“We will also block certain Russian banks and financial transactions connected to Russia,” Balakrishnan said. The measures would be revealed soon.

In his speech, he said Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a “clear and gross violation of the international norms and a completely unacceptable precedent.”

“This is an existential issue for us,” he said. “A world order based on ‘might is right’ … would be profoundly inimical to the security and survival of small states.

“We cannot accept one country attacking another without justification, arguing that its independence was the result of ‘historical errors and crazy decisions’.”

Balakrishnan acknowledged that Singapore’s actions would entail “some cost and implications on our businesses, citizens, and indeed, to Singapore.”

“However, unless we as a country stand up for principles that are the very foundation for the independence and sovereignty of smaller nations,” he said, “our own right to exist and prosper as a nation may similarly be called into question one day.”

Later that day, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on a Facebook post: “What is happening in Ukraine now is important to us. Singapore strongly condemns Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and affirms that the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine must be respected.”

“As a small country, we strive to maintain good relations with all countries big and small,” he said. “We do not choose sides, but chart our own course based on consistent principles and long-term national interests.”

According to retired Singapore senior diplomat Bilahari Kausikan, this was the second time Singapore imposed unilateral sanctions. The first time was after Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1978, he said in a post on social media.
“The issue then was the same—the invasion of a sovereign state in gross violation of the U.N. Charter and international law,” he said.

Responses of Other ASEAN Countries

Indonesian President Joko Widodo posted on Twitter, “Stop the war,” on Feb. 24.

“War brings misery to mankind and puts the whole world at risk,” he said. Neither Russia nor Ukraine was named.

A day later, on Feb. 25, also without naming Russia, Indonesia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that “the military attack on Ukraine is unacceptable” as territorial integrity and sovereignty should be upheld in accordance with the U.N. Charter and international law.
Brunei, on Feb. 26, released a statement on Ukraine.

“Brunei Darussalam condemns any violation of sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of any country, and reiterates the importance of upholding the principles of a rules-based framework and respect for international law.”

Thailand mirrored the official ASEAN stance in a statement on Feb. 27, a step up from an earlier Feb. 24 statement where it noted its concern regarding “developments in Ukraine and escalation of tensions in Europe” and voiced its support of efforts to find a “peaceful settlement to the situation through dialogue.”
Cambodia, similar to Thailand, also mirrored ASEAN’s stance in a statement.
Vietnam, in a Feb. 25 press release, stated that it was “deeply concerned with the armed conflict in Ukraine,” and called for all parties to “exercise restraint, observe the United Nations Charter and the fundamental principles of international law … and keep up dialogue to seek a peaceful solution.”
Prior to ASEAN’s statement, the Philippines had called on “the international community to reaffirm by more than words its commitment to the peaceful settlement of disputes” and “urge all parties to exert every effort to stick to diplomatic and peaceful means,” in its statement on Feb. 25.
After Malaysia initially expressed “sadness” for the situation in Ukraine on Feb. 24, its issued a subsequent statement on Feb. 26 expressing its concern over the “escalation of conflict in Ukraine” and calling for “all concerned parties to immediately take steps to de-escalate and prevent loss of lives and devastation.”
In a press statement, Laos on Feb. 26 described the situation in Ukraine as “evolving, complex and sensitive.” It also called all parties to “exercise utmost restraint and pursue efforts in deescalating the tension that may undermine international peace and security.”
Burma’s (also known as Myanmar) military regime is supported Russia. According to Ye Myo Hein, a fellow at Wilson Center, the military junta said on Feb. 24 that “Russia’s invasion is an appropriate measure to preserve its sovereignty.”
The varying degrees of firmness in ASEAN nations’ responses against Russia’s military actions are in sync with the varying degrees of closeness in bilateral ties between these countries and Russia.

Vaccine and Defense Diplomacy

Russia has been trying to boost its relationship with Southeast Asian countries over the past year. Despite the country’s traditionally weak ties in the region, vaccine diplomacy has opened a new window of opportunity.

Just three months ago, Vietnamese pharmaceutical company VAbiotech and investment firm Sovico Group inked a new deal with Russian counterparts to expand the production of Sputnik V vaccines in Vietnam when COVID-19 cases peaked again. This is after the Southeast Asian country has successfully manufactured a test batch of Sputnik V vaccines in July and purchased 20 million doses of the Russian vaccine in June.

In the Philippines, Russia delivered 10 million doses of Sputnik V vaccines—albeit after several delays—and donated 5,000 doses of the one-shot version of the Russian vaccine, Sputnik Light, last year.
Malaysia secured 6.4 million doses of Sputnik V last June. Russia also had earlier offered to share with Malaysia its technical know-how to produce the Russian vaccine, according to local media Malay Mail.

Russian vaccine diplomacy, however, still pales when compared to that of China and the United States, and has not always been smooth in making inroads into the Southeast Asia market.

Out of more than 66 million doses of vaccines administered in Malaysia so far, close to 60 percent were Pfizer while Sinovac accounted for about 32 percent.

Last month, more than 60 million doses of Pfizer and 55 million doses of Sinovac vaccines had been delivered to the Philippines.

Even in Vietnam, only about one percent out of a total of 150 million doses of vaccines received are Sputnik V.

In Thailand, the government announced plans to purchase Sputnik V last April, but the vaccine has not yet been approved by the Thai Food and Drug Authority. Although a Lancet study had reported the vaccine efficacy of Sputnik V to be 91.6 percent against COVID-19, researchers were also concerned of the lack of data for Sputnik V phase 3 trial.

In terms of trade, the weights of both Russia and Ukraine are marginal in ASEAN’s trade network.

Russia accounted for less than 6 percent of the value of total bilateral trade flows between ASEAN member states and the world, and Ukraine represented an even smaller 1 percent in 2020.

Meanwhile, China and the United States combined accounted for more than 30 percent of ASEAN bilateral trade flows, based on estimates using Direction of Trade Statistics published by the IMF.

Interestingly, against the weak economic fundamentals underpinning the Russia-ASEAN relationship, Russian arms export into Southeast Asia notably stands out.

However, despite being the world’s second largest arms exporter, Russia’s arms sales outlook has not been that rosy in the past decade. Russian arms exports globally have declined by 18 percent between 2010 and 2019, due to both U.S. sanctions and increasing competition from China and South Korea, according to Ian Storey, senior fellow at Singapore’s ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute.

“China is a particular source of frustration for Russia because some of its arms exports are copied or retro-engineered from military equipment originally purchased from Russia. Moreover, because China views defense sales as a tool to acquire political influence rather than generate money, it is willing to undercut Russia on price,” said the researcher.

But within the ASEAN region, Russia remained the top weaponry exporter into Southeast Asia from 2000 to 2019, based on data published by Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Since Russia announced its “turn to the east” policy in 2010, the country has been pushing forward its “defense diplomacy” in Southeast Asia, noted Storey.

The Kremlin’s Asia pivot aimed to reduce Russia’s dependence on the West and ride the wave of Asia’s economic growth.

Huge disparities exist within the ASEAN region in purchases of Russian arms, though.

Vietnam, Malaysia, Myanmar, Indonesia, and Laos are Russia’s “long-standing customers”—with Vietnam having 84 percent of its total arms imports coming from Russia—whereas Thailand, the Philippines, and Cambodia are “new and potentially new customers.” Over the other end of the spectrum, Singapore and Brunei are “low potential countries,” according to Storey.

History Repeats

The spectrum of ASEAN leaders’ responses to the current Russian aggression in Ukraine is similar to that after Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Both now and back then, Singapore has been the most direct in voicing out opposition to Russian attacks. The country said that “it opposes the annexation of Crimea into Russia” in 2014.

As a city state, Singapore perhaps particularly understands the predicament and uncertainties small countries such as Ukraine face when squeezed between major powers of the world.

Reflecting on the Ukraine crisis, Singapore’s then Minister for Foreign Affairs K Shanmugam pointed out that “when it comes to the crunch, treaties are only meaningful if you have the ability to enforce them.” He also noted that country size matters in international affairs and that the U.N. Security Council “cannot always act decisively to protect small countries.”

“We do not know what was or was not considered by the different parties. And we do not know what the P3 [the UK, the U.S., and France] and EU plan to do next. What is obvious now is that it is, unfortunately, Ukraine and its people who have to face the consequences of all that has happened,” Shanmugam said at the time.