Guest Column

ASEAN Responds to Invasion of Ukraine

By Kavi Chongkittavorn 2 March 2022

Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine that began on Feb. 24 offers valuable lessons for the countries in the region, which have often become the pitched geopolitical battleground for the great powers. From now on, no matter how the Ukraine crisis ends, it will significantly impact the security of Europe and lead to the emergence of a new order to which ASEAN has to quickly adjust.

On Saturday, ASEAN was ready and issued a strongly worded statement towards one of its strategic partners saying that they are “deeply concerned” over the evolving situation and hostilities in Ukraine. The statement was released after Russian troops began military assaults on key Ukrainian cities. Russia is one of the grouping’s nine strategic partners that also comprise China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, New Zealand, the US and the EU.

“We call on all relevant parties to exercise maximum restraint and make utmost effort 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 the international laws, and the principles of the United Nations charter and the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia,” the statement read.

Before its release, it was circulated among all the 10-member countries including Myanmar. Naypyitaw went along without any objection. However, before ASEAN’s common positions were made public, key ASEAN members had already issued their own views. Indonesia and Singapore condemned the military action by Russia. Other ASEAN members also expressed concern to various degrees.

In a statement, a spokesperson of Singapore’s Foreign Ministry strongly condemned “any unprovoked invasion of a sovereign country under any pretext”. He added Singapore is “gravely concerned” by Russia’s “special military operation” in the Donbas region, and reports of land and air attacks on multiple targets in Ukraine. “We reiterate that the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine must be respected.”

Teuku Faizasyah, the Indonesian Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said that Indonesia is concerned about the escalation of the armed conflict in Ukraine, which seriously endangers the safety of the people and affects peace in the region. “[We] assert that international law and the United Nations Charter on territorial integrity must be adhered to and condemn any action that clearly constitutes a violation of the territory and sovereignty of a country,” said Faizasyah. Indonesia, he added, still expects all parties to prioritize negotiations and diplomacy to stop conflicts and encourage peaceful settlements.

Besides the ASEAN joint statement, Thailand made two additional comments. The first was a short one at home and the other a more critical one at the UN headquarters in New York. In his remarks at the UN’s 76th plenary session, Suriya Chinadawongse, Thailand’s representative to the UN, expressed deep concern over the escalation of tensions threatening international peace and security. Thailand also supports efforts to find a peaceful settlement of the situation through dialogue in accordance with the UN charter and international law, upholding the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity. Thailand supports the Minsk agreement—the ceasefire pact signed in 2015 between Kyiv and Moscow as well as other UN efforts and regional mechanisms including the OSCE and Normandy Format. Thailand is also concerned at the possible humanitarian consequences.

For Myanmar, it was doublespeak as it turned out. Zaw Min Tun, the military junta’s spokesperson, said the Russian military had done what was justified for the sustainability of their country’s sovereignty and showed its status as a powerful country for the balance of world peace. Since the coup last February, Russia and the junta in Naypyitaw have further strengthened their relationship especially in security cooperation. Russia is a major arms exporter to Myanmar. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, between 1998-2018, Russia was the No. 1 arms supplier to all Southeast Asian countries.

Later this year, Russia’s relations with ASEAN and the wider Asia-Pacific region will be put to the test internationally as Russian President Vladimir Putin is due to attend the ASEAN-related summits in Phnom Penh and the Asia Pacific Economic Leaders’ Meeting in Bangkok in November. These two major events will place a marker or two on Russia’s role and profile after the Ukraine debacle. It is difficult at this time to make any forecast.

For Thailand, the stakes are high as ever as the country is hosting the APEC summit. Concerned authorities fear that major powers’ conflict could manifest itself on the APEC platform. Before the official announcement was made on Feb. 11 that the US would host next year’s APEC, some political dramas were played out at earlier senior official meetings in Phuket to bar the US from assuming the chair.

As the host, Thailand is looking forward to welcoming all the leaders of 21 economies, especially the US, China and Russia. When Thailand chaired APEC in 2003, His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej the Great welcomed three state guests—US President George W Bush, Chinese President Hu Jintao and Putin. Of the three leaders, only Putin remains in power. He is expected to attend the Bangkok summit this November.

Since it will be the first year of possible physical meetings among all leaders from 21 economies in the Asia Pacific which includes the US, Russia and China, Thailand wishes to use this opportunity to herald a new economic development model for the world to see. However, if the tensions in Ukraine continue without any possibility of a settlement, it could directly impact the scheduled APEC leaders’ meeting, which has been set for Nov. 18 and 19.

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs.

This article first appeared in The Bangkok Post.

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