ASEAN’s weak response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

Last Saturday, in a two-paragraph statement, ASEAN foreign ministers said they were ‘deeply concerned over the evolving situation and armed hostilities in Ukraine’. They called on ‘all relevant parties to exercise maximum restraint and make utmost efforts to pursue dialogues through all channels, including diplomatic means to contain the situation, to de-escalate tensions, and to seek peaceful resolution in accordance with international law, the principles of the United Nations Charter’. The statement continued, ‘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.’

Reading those lines, what would disappoint many is that there is no reference to Russia and no condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The generalised wording of the statement could make someone who is out of touch with the breaking news think that the ministers are talking about a civil armed conflict rather than a state-to-state war between Russia and Ukraine. Whatever the reasons or pretexts Russian President Vladimir Putin cited in his raging speech announcing the deployment of a ‘peacekeeping’ mission, with the sending of troops into Ukraine, Russia has obviously launched an invasion against an independent and sovereign state and a fellow member of the United Nations.

Russia’s use of force constitutes an act of aggression and violation of the UN charter and international law. So, why was the name Russia absent from the ASEAN ministers’ statement?

Here is the assumption reading between the lines. The ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine was too far away for ASEAN to be affected. That war was in Europe not in Asia or Southeast Asia, and therefore it wasn’t in the interests of ASEAN to speak. More pragmatically, though, Russia is a trading partner and a major or potential weapons supplier to most ASEAN members, while Ukraine is not. Russia is a strategic partner and member of several key mechanisms led by ASEAN, while Ukraine is not.

Is it because of these factors that Russia wasn’t named in the statement and condemnation? No one apart from ASEAN can answer that question, but if the group fails to condemn Russia, it fails to honour the commitments solemnly stated in its own charter.

While ASEAN itself has not criticised Russia, Singapore, one of the group’s founding members, has joined the US, the EU, and many other countries in the region including Japan and Australia in strongly condemning Putin’s actions, and is planning to impose ‘appropriate sanctions and restrictions’ to punish Russia for its assault on Ukraine.

ASEAN, in its charter, which was unanimously endorsed by all group members in 2007, vows to respect ‘the fundamental importance of amity and cooperation, and the principles of sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity, non-interference, consensus, and unity in diversity’, renounce ‘aggression and … the threat or use of force or other actions in any manner inconsistent with international law’, and uphold ‘the United Nations Charter and international law’.

Even though the ASEAN charter is meant for its members in Southeast Asia, by adopting these universal principles, ASEAN demonstrates that the group is not just a regional organisation but is more broadly part of the international community. Its pledge to honour the UN charter and international law reflects a commitment to live in peace and security and to respect the wellbeing and protect the lives of civilians.

Raising concerns and issuing a statement of condemnation of an act that constitutes a serious violation of international law and poses threats to international peace, security and stability in the region or other parts of the world has precedents in ASEAN’s recent records. For example, in 2017, in relation to actions including nuclear tests undertaken by North Korea, ASEAN leaders expressed their ‘grave concerns’ in the statement of the chair of the 30th ASEAN Summit.

Similarly, in 2018, regarding the situation in Syria, ASEAN foreign ministers adopted a statement declaring, ‘The situation in Syria is of serious concern to international peace and stability.’ They urged all parties ‘to exercise restraint and settle the dispute by peaceful means in accordance with international law, including the UN Charter’ and said that ‘all parties must take steps to avoid escalation and ensure the safety and security of civilians’. ASEAN had the same response to the situation in Iraq and Palestine.

The tensions linked with China’s aggressive actions in relation to the disputes in the South China Sea have been a constant concern in ASEAN leaders’ and foreign ministers’ statements.

But in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea, ASEAN stayed silent. This time, Russia had seemingly even more reason to be confident about ASEAN’s response after the two sides elevated their ties to a strategic partnership in 2018. In addition, Moscow seems to have appreciated that its close relations with every single ASEAN member state, along with the group’s working principle of consensus, would save Russia from condemnation if the group had intended to craft any such a statement on its attacks on Ukraine.

Within ASEAN—with the exception of Singapore and Indonesia, both of which condemned Russia’s actions—other nations have offered tamer responses. The Malaysian prime minister spoke bluntly at a press conference during his visit to Cambodia, saying that ‘ASEAN agrees that we do not get involved in the issues of foreign countries’. ASEAN is not alone in Asia in being friendly to Russia on this. China and India have both avoided condemning Russia. However, unlike China and India, ASEAN is a group of smaller countries and some of them are currently involved in territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea. As such, it would be a mistake if ASEAN refrained from issuing such a generalised statement.

Issuing such a muted condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could have some repercussions and shows the weakness of ASEAN again in not taking a united position against an aggressive act of a major power in the region, as it has also failed to do against China’s actions in the South China Sea. The ASEAN foreign ministers’ statement could be interpreted as meaningless when it didn’t express explicit sympathy for this tragedy and for the grievous and needless suffering of the civilians affected.