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  • Geoff Donald

Southeast Asia's reponse to the invasion of Ukraine

As the entire world knows by now on the morning of February 24, 2022, the Russian Army crossed Ukraine’s border in the start of a full-scale assault. Now eight days later, the invasion continues as Russian troops slowly make their way towards the Ukraine’s major cities.

With this armed invasion by Russia came immediate condemnation of this massive violation of a country sovereignty by European countries, NATO members and other countries around the world. Countries have begun to increase transfer of both lethal and non-lethal military supplies to Ukraine, closed airspaces to Russian planes, imposes sanctions on Russian individuals and companies, and begun the process of removing Russia’s access to the global financial system.

But what of about Southeast Asia? How have the countries in the region reacted?

So far, the reaction has been muted. Of the ten countries in the region, only Singapore and Indonesia have directly called out Russia as the aggressor while only Singapore has begun the process of imposing sanctions in conjunction with other countries. Myanmar, on the other hand, is publicly backing the Russian government in its military operations in Ukraine.

For the remaining countries of Southeast Asia, their reaction to the invasion of Ukraine can be charitably described as “ambivalent”. Even the wording of the ASEAN Foreign Minister Statement is revealing in its use of the words “armed hostilities”, “exercise maximum restraint” and while avoiding to even using the word “Russia”.

It is notable that even the news coverage of the ongoing combat in Ukraine has already begun to fade from the local media as they revert to stories on COVID or other national related issues.

Why such a muted reaction?

So why haven’t countries in Southeast Asia taken a stronger stance on this issue?

One reason is that for most ASEAN countries and leaders is that they do not see the Russian invasion and ongoing combat in Ukraine as strategically relevant to their country or to the Southeast Asia region. This line of reasoning seems to be “If it doesn’t affect us, why should we take sides?” Connected to this line of thinking is the idea put forward by pundits is that ASEAN countries do not see how they are part of the solution to a European land war so they might as well stay quiet or “silence is the better part of valour.”

A second reason for the lack of a stronger stance is that ASEAN countries normally avoid commenting on or getting involved with other countries internal affairs. While the Ukraine-Russian conflict is not an internal matter within a single state, the ASEAN reflex of not commenting or acting is being applied in this case. This lack of action should surprise outsiders as countries in Southeast Asia have not taken any real concrete steps against fellow ASEAN member Myanmar after the 2021 February military coup. If ASEAN countries are not willing to take strong public stances or actions for countries in their own neighbourhood, it makes sense that this reflex of non-involvement will carry over to other areas of the world.

Thirdly for ASEAN countries economic affairs drive foreign policy. In the case of either Ukraine or Russia neither country plays in an important economic role in Southeast Asia. Russia was the ASEAN regions ninth largest trading partner at $US15 billion in 2020 while Ukraine trade with the region is best described as “paltry”. In addition to low levels of trade, neither country is a major investor in Southeast Asia. In terms of free trade agreements neither Russia nor Ukraine have bilateral trade agreements with ASEAN countries, but Singapore and Vietnam have both signed Free Trade Agreements with the Eurasian Economic Union of which Russia is the dominant partner. While Russian is large arms supplier to Myanmar and Vietnam, it has limited military exports to other countries in the region. From an economic point of view, the war in Ukraine will not significantly impact the ASEAN region’s exports or imports although the region is being impacted by higher prices for commodities that would normally be sourced from either Ukraine or Russia.

A fourth factor for Southeast Asia governments quiet approach is their immediate focus on evacuating their own nationals from either Ukraine itself or from neighboring countries. It is possible that these countries are holding off on taking a more definitive stance until most of their citizens are safe. For example, the Philippines Foreign Minister Loscin has flown to Poland to help being home Filipinos who were living and working in Ukraine so we could expect the normally pugnacious Minister to be more public soon.

History could also be playing a role in ASEAN states approach to the current Russian invasion. While largely forgotten in Western countries, the legacy of European and American colonialism is still at play in Southeast Asia as is a skepticism amongst political and economic elites in the region about the West and its commitment to Southeast Asia. Still others have argued that it was the United States neglect of ASEAN countries under President Trump is a contributing factor to ASEAN states remaining quiet.

A final reason for the ASEAN reaction so far is China. Like its neighbors to the South, China has officially taken a neutral position on the Russian invasion, but it has allowed Chinese media to promote messages that blames this incursion on NATO and the United States. In fact, leaked memos have directed Chinese media to “not post anything unfavorable to Russia or pro-Western”. As well, China has chosen not to impose economic or military sanctions on Russia. Considering the major economic ties between the ASEAN region and China along with the ongoing security concerns in the region, it is not too surprising to see that ASEAN countries are unwilling to stray too far from the Chinese position out of fear of repercussions.

Although tempting from a communications point of view, it is too simplistic to suggest that only one of the specific reasons listed above is driving the decision of each ASEAN country in how they are reacting to the Russian-Ukraine war. Whether it is history, skepticism, economic connections, a position of avoiding commenting on another countries “internal affairs,” internal security considerations, ideology or numerous other factors, countries in Southeast Asia are weary of being involved with what they view as a European problem rather than an Asian or global issue.

Impact of Southeast Asia neutrality choice

While the position of not choosing a side in the Russian-Ukraine ware may seem to be a viable choice for ASEAN countries in the short term, these same countries are already trying to answer questions like:

- If Russia is successful in taking over Ukraine, will ASEAN countries be happy about the precedent that a larger country can invade a smaller neighbor?

- While ASEAN has been willing to take a hands-off approach to other countries regarding their “internal affairs”, the Russian invasion represents a violation of state sovereignty, a concept that ASEAN countries profess to be very concerned about. How do ASEAN countries match up their rhetoric with their actions on this issue? What impact will it have on their credibility?

- Will Western countries view ASEAN governments as less than dependable security partners or committed to the international order? What impact will this have on going forward?

- If ASEAN faces a similar security situation at some point in the future, can they expect similar international support or will other countries simply say, “Why should we stand with you when you wouldn’t stand with us?”

- Will the potential of growing markets and economic benefits in the ASEAN region and its geographic position in engaging with China mean that other countries will be willing to overlook Southeast Asia current stance?

- What could happen to force ASEAN nations to change their positions? What will happen to the famed ASEAN unity if the members start choosing sides?

- What happens to their relationship to the United States and Europe if they choose to support Ukraine? Stay Neutral? Support Russian?

- What happens to their relationship with China if they choose to support Russia? Stay Neutral? Support Ukraine?

- What are the internal political impacts of taking a position in this war? Of not taking a position?

In the short term at least, most of the ASEAN countries have chosen a form of neutrality in calling for restraint and an end of hostilities rather than condemning one side or another. This position seems to be based on the hope of avoiding having to choose a side, avoid any consequences from what is viewed as a European or Western issue, and hope for a return to business as usual soon. Yet not choosing as side is a choice in of itself and as former the United Kingdom Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said, “Standing in the middle of the road is very dangerous; you get knocked down by the traffic from both sides.” ASEAN countries are going to have to be careful that their short-term position does not have long term negative effects.

Post Script

On March 2, the United Nations General Assembly vote on a resolution against Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and called for the “immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw all of its military forces from the territory of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders.”

The final vote amongst the members of the UN was 141 countries in favour of the motion, five countries were opposed to the resolution while another thirty-five countries abstained from the vote. All countries in Southeast Asia voted in favour of the resolution except Vietnam and Laos both of whom chose to abstain.

It should be noted that Myanmar voted in favour of the resolution, but this does not reflect the official view of the military junta who took over the country last year. Myanmar UN seat is still held by an official from the ousted government.

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