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No commitment against Russia: How the EU can respond to ASEAN’s reticence

Point of View, 14.03.2022 Research Areas

ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, is avoiding a clear condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Nevertheless, Felix Heiduk and Gudrun Wacker believe that for Berlin and Brussels, there are starting points for dialogue and cooperation.

Even more than a week after the Russian attack on Ukraine, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is still mincing its words. In a Joint Statement, ASEAN foreign ministers did not even name Russia as the aggressor, let alone condemn it. They merely called for dialogue, respect for sovereignty, and a ceasefire. This reaction was to be expected – and yet it is disappointing. After all, ASEAN is a central anchor of Germany’s and Europe’s Indo-Pacific strategy. It is deemed essential for the aspired diversification of political and economic partners to reduce Germany’s dependency on China. It is also an important partner to foster multilateral cooperation and maintain a rules-based regional order. A closer look, however, reveals a more nuanced picture of ASEAN that offers opportunities and starting points for German and European diplomacy.

A weak common position

In its charter, ASEAN emphasizes the importance of peaceful conflict resolution as well as respect for territorial integrity, sovereignty, and the rules-based international order. However, as an intergovernmental organization committed to the principle of consensus, it is subject to the often conflicting interests of its members, which then leads to positions representing the lowest common denominator.

This was also the case in the attack on Ukraine: ASEAN’s position reflected factors such as Vietnam’s historically close relations with Russia, Russia’s role as an arms and energy supplier for parts of the region, and the hope that closer relations with Russia would go some way toward weakening China’s increasing dominance in the region, even if the latter seems increasingly questionable in view of the “ironclad” partnership between Moscow and Beijing.

ASEAN is therefore likely to continue to show restraint toward Moscow. Russia, unlike Ukraine, is an established ASEAN dialogue partner and member of multilateral formats such as the East Asia Summit, the ASEAN Regional Forum, and also the economic organization Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation. In addition, Indonesia is chairing the G20 this year, which also includes Russia.

Heterogeneity of the ASEAN states

The range of positions within ASEAN are reflected in the voting behavior of its members on the Ukraine resolution in the UN General Assembly: Only Vietnam and Laos abstained, but all others supported the resolution. A special case is Myanmar, whose junta openly supports Russia’s war of aggression because Russia recognized it internationally after its coup d’etat in 2021. Myanmar’s UN ambassador – an avowed opponent of the military coup in his country but who is still accredited to the UN – also voted in favor of the resolution. States such as Indonesia and the Philippines (after initial hesitation) condemned Russia’s actions. Singapore has gone even further: It is the only ASEAN member to date to impose unilateral sanctions against Russia.

Implications for Germany and the EU

How can Berlin and Brussels deal with this complex situation? First, they should not abandon ASEAN despite, or precisely because of, its restraint and neutrality. After all, the consensus principle in foreign and security policy issues often enough leads to weak statements in the EU as well. They should use the channels to ASEAN as well as to individual member states to create awareness about the possible effects of the Russian intervention on the international order.

Furthermore, an adaption of the narrative put forward by the United States – that the world is in the ultimate struggle between democracies and autocracies – is not helpful when it comes to the political reality in the region. At worst, it can even be harmful if such a black-and-white scheme excludes potential like-minded partners who are guided by similar interests. Even states that are not democracies in the “transatlantic” definition may have an interest in a rules-based order where the principle “might makes right” and disregard for territorial sovereignty do not apply. The case of Singapore – classified as “partly free” in the Freedom House Index – as the only ASEAN state imposing sanctions against Russia is a case in point. Moreover, disruptions in the global economy also have an impact on Southeast Asia, for example in areas such as energy security due to rising oil prices or food security due to reduced grain exports from Ukraine.

The voting behavior of the ASEAN states in the UN shows that there is a basis of shared interests, even if not of common values. After all, these are predominantly small and medium-sized states that are themselves exposed to varying degrees of pressure, threats, and attempts at intimidation on the part of a major power, namely China, but at the same time see themselves as dependent, mainly in the economic area. Seeing that even states with close ties to Russia, such as Vietnam, are now discussing the plight of Ukraine, cooperation can be sought at least on humanitarian issues. This would be important, on the one hand, to underline the central role of all ASEAN states for Europe’s Indo-Pacific policy. On the other hand, it would also have symbolic significance, as it would appear to at least partially weaken the close ties of some with Russia in the Ukraine crisis. With other states, such as Singapore or even G20 host Indonesia, cooperation on Ukraine could be intensified at the diplomatic level. Consideration should also be given to an EU-ASEAN special meeting at the ministerial level on the political, economic, and humanitarian implications of the war in Ukraine. Germany and the EU should not use Russia’s invasion of their own neighborhood as an excuse to turn their attention away from the Indo-Pacific again, but should see this as an opportunity for increased exchange and cooperation with the states in the region, including ASEAN members. In doing so, they must take into account existing differences in the region. This requires a flexible rather than a uniform approach.