President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine from Feb. 24 is deeply consequential for Southeast Asia, both as a region and ASEAN as a regional organization. Even though this region is relatively far away from the cut and thrust of Russia’s war in Ukraine, ASEAN has already encountered new internal divisions stemming from the raging conflict in Europe. As a result, ASEAN’s age-old approach of consensus will likely become more problematic in the search for new and more effective ways of cooperation among like-minded member states.
Russia’s war is akin to the third of a triple whammy for ASEAN’s divisiveness. First, ASEAN has been divided since the infamous incident in 2012 when Cambodia, as ASEAN’s chair at the time, was unable to lead the 10-member grouping to come up with a joint statement. The sticking point was China’s maneuvers in the South China Sea, which were opposed by the Philippines and Vietnam.
ASEAN then became increasingly polarized around China’s assertiveness in maritime Southeast Asia. With less unity, ASEAN’s common position and posture were further challenged by the United States’ moves to counter and push back against Beijing, first under President Barack Obama and later President Donald Trump. The Obama response featured a regional trade deal that excluded China, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But Trump went further with an all-out trade and technology war against China, spearheaded by the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) geo-strategy to constrain China. As tensions between the two superpowers intensified, ASEAN was pressed and picked apart by both sides.
Cambodia and Laos became overt, all-weather allies of China, whereas Singapore and Vietnam increasingly leaned towards the US, with other members in between. Under mercurial President Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines accommodated China, but it recently turned the other way to rely on its treaty alliance with Washington. Because of its authoritarian governance and political repression, Thailand was forced to seek China’s support, but yet still engaged Washington as a treaty ally to keep Beijing from taking advantage of Bangkok. By 2019, ASEAN was able to regroup up to a point. Under Thailand’s chairmanship, the bloc came up with the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, which regained autonomy and space vis-à-vis the Trump administration’s FOIP. In the following year, under Vietnam’s leadership, ASEAN was able to sign the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. Not long after regaining confidence, ASEAN was struck by Myanmar’s military coup in February last year, and the ensuing civil war since.
Southeast Asia’s governments’ responses to Myanmar’s military dictatorship, which upended an elected civilian-led government under the National League for Democracy and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, lined up on two sides. Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore called for the return of the democratic process and pre-coup conditions. The rest of ASEAN was rather mum on the Myanmar putsch. Nearly three months later, ASEAN came up with a “five-point consensus” to mediate and facilitate dialogue among all sides, to be led by an ASEAN envoy. This proposal has made little progress.
Similar to previous fissures, the Russian war in Ukraine has become another fault line. ASEAN’s initial reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was perfunctory and pathetic, calling for diplomatic means and peaceful resolution without calling out Russia’s wrongful invasion. The ASEAN position undermined its core principles of upholding sovereignty, territorial integrity and non-interference.
A few days later, when the UN General Assembly put up a non-binding resolution to condemn Russia for “aggression against Ukraine”, Laos and Vietnam were among the 35 abstentions, while the other eight ASEAN member states were among the 141 that voted in favor, including Cambodia. Only five UN members opposed the vote, led by Russia.
Singapore has been at the forefront of ASEAN in putting its vote into action, imposing outright sanctions on Russia. Thailand voted for the resolution but its written position stopped short of condemning Russia by name. Clearly, Russia’s blatant violation and disregard for the UN Charter and international law made the vote a foregone conclusion for most members. Those that abstained, including China, had issues and concerns at stake vis-à-vis Russia.
The wedge in ASEAN unity from Russia’s war in Ukraine has not neatly followed earlier patterns. When it comes to China’s interests in the South China Sea and Myanmar’s coup, Cambodia is supportive of Beijing and the Myanmar military, but not so of Russia. Laos’ position appears to back all three — China in the South China Sea, Myanmar’s coup and Russia’s aggression. Vietnam has been critical of China, silent on Myanmar’s coup and sympathetic to Russia. Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore have aligned in their concerns about China’s role in the South China Sea, Myanmar’s military takeover and overthrow of a democratically elected government and Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Thailand has been soft on China’s South China Sea belligerence and Myanmar’s coup, while taking a measured stand against Russia’s invasion. Myanmar itself is a telling case. The UN still recognizes its ambassador from the elected civilian government under Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, while ASEAN so far has not allowed the Myanmar junta to represent the country in major meetings, requesting a “non-political” nominee. So Myanmar voted against Russia at the UN while the Myanmar military supported the Kremlin.
As controversies abound, and worsened by a lack of unity, ASEAN under Cambodia’s chairmanship will be hard pressed to host its annual summits with the major powers this year, just when pandemic restrictions may ease sufficiently to allow in-person meetings. Some major dialogue partners may boycott meetings if others choose to join. This is a time of existential crisis for ASEAN where fudging and muddling may not be enough to get by.
What ASEAN needs is a new approach of like-mindedness. Those willing and able to take common positions short of a region-wide, 10-member consensus should go ahead and do so. Already Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore are leading the way. Others, such as Thailand and Vietnam, can join on issues and areas they deem to be in their interest. The rest can sit it out or come in as they see fit.
It is unthinkable to some and painful to many to contemplate and accept that the only way ASEAN can move forward in the 2020s is to do away with the old “ASEAN way”, as the sum of its parts is increasingly less than the whole. In fact, the old and original ASEAN membership — Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Singapore — may need to be revived as the renewed core of the organization. The ASEAN that we have known over the past 23 years, since Cambodia was the last Southeast Asian country to join, may have run its course. The sooner we face up to it, the better for the regional organization.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak is a professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science.
This article first appeared in The Bangkok Post.
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