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Uneasy balancing: why Southeast Asian countries are maintaining neutrality with respect to Ukraine

Following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, many members of the international community strongly condemned the aggressor country.

By contrast, the response of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which has ten members including Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Myanmar, sounds meek. However, it can be understood upon a closer look at official statements made by these countries.

From neutrality to supporting Russia: three groups with different reactions to the war in Ukraine

Fulcrum, an online media that specializes in analyzing sociopolitical, economic, and geostrategic trends in Southeast Asia, divides ASEAN countries into three groups based on their responses to Russia's war.

Response to war: condemning Russia

The first group condemns the aggressor country, at least indirectly. For example, Indonesia was careful not to accuse Russia openly but eventually condemned "any action that violates territory and sovereignty". By the way, it is Indonesia that presides at the G20, the international summit of the world’s 20 largest economies plus the EU, this year.

Response to war: avoidance of publicly condemning Russia

The second group avoids condemning Russia publicly. For example, Vietnam, while citing the UN Charter, stressed the need for "restraint" and "dialogue", but never mentioned the Russian Federation negatively. So did Thailand.

Response to war: supporting Russia

The third group is limited to Myanmar, which has openly supported Russia because, in turn, Russia is one of the few countries that approve of Myanmar’s military junta.

Balancing political compromises is becoming increasingly difficult for Southeast Asian governments. We will try to explain the motivation of Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Myanmar and the impact it has on their relations with Ukraine.

Thailand: an internal crisis and Russian tourists

Thailand’s relations with Ukraine and Russia. Photo: Pixabay

Thailand’s relations with Ukraine and Russia. Photo: Pixabay

The website of the Embassy of Ukraine in the Kingdom of Thailand says:

Quote"Thailand remains the key partner of Ukraine among the countries of the Southeast Asia region."

The economic relations between the Ukrainians and the Thais are based mainly on the export of agricultural products and cooperation in the agrarian area, in particular Thailand’s investments in the agroindustrial sector of the Ukrainian economy.

During the Cold War, Thailand implemented pro-American, and thus anti-communist, initiatives in its foreign policy, namely:

  • fighting in Korea and Vietnam under the US’s command;
  • initiating the creation of SEATO (South-East Asia Treaty Organization), later dubbed "Asia’s ill-starred version of NATO," which existed from 1955 until 1977;
  • being one of the first members of ASEAN, which opposed the Soviet-backed occupation in 1978 when Vietnam invaded Cambodia.

However, after the Cold War, especially since the beginning of the XXI century, the country has given up its active role in international relations, trying to strike a balance between supporting America and China. This is why it is often compared to bamboo "bending with the wind".

Fulcrum authors explain the "foreign policy introversion" of Thailand with its domestic crisis, which resulted in a series of military coups and forced the political establishment to focus on defending democratic values inside the country.

However, before the coronavirus pandemic, Russia had been the goose that laid the golden egg for Thailand’s tourism industry. In 2019, 1.4 million Russians visited Thailand, and the revenue from trade between them and the Thais amounted to $2.5 billion the same year.

The sanctions introduced after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine caused the suspension of flights from Russia and the processing of payments from Russian banks. The loss of this important source of income had a significant impact on Thailand's economy.

Nevertheless, Thailand supported two resolutions of the UN General Assembly condemning Russian armed aggression against Ukraine and urging Russia to leave Ukraine’s sovereign territory on March 2 and 24.

This vote was in line with the position of the younger, more progressive population of the country. Meanwhile, according to The Guardian, both liberal and more conservative Thais have criticized the West for its role in the crisis.

Notably, Thailand later switched to neutrality on Ukraine: on April 7, the country abstained in the vote for expelling Russia from the UN Human Rights Council, as well as from condemning Vladimir Putin’s unlawful annexation of four Ukrainian regions on October 12.

The UN vote on condemning Vladimir Putin’s unlawful annexation of four Ukrainian regions

The UN vote on condemning Vladimir Putin’s unlawful annexation of four Ukrainian regions

The Russo-Ukrainian war has divided the Thai public into three factions. The Bangkok Post classified them as supporters of "strong condemnation", "non-partisan", or "the UN charter".

Vietnam: safeguarding the regime and Russian weapons

Vietnam: neutrality towards Ukraine and approval of Russia’s crimes. Photo: Pixabay

Vietnam: neutrality towards Ukraine and approval of Russia’s crimes. Photo: Pixabay

The website of the Embassy of Ukraine in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam says that the Ukrainians export mostly ores, slag, and ash to Vietnam, while importing primarily electric machines from the other country.

In addition, Ukraine and Vietnam have well-established defense cooperation.

During the emergency session of the UN General Assembly held shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Vietnam called on both sides to "de-escalate tension and resume dialogue," offering to act as a mediator to that end.

However, during the adoption of the resolution condemning Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine on March 2, the Socialist Republic abstained from voting against or in favor, being the only ASEAN member state to do so.

The country also abstained from the March 24 resolution, while on April 7, it was against expelling Russia from the UN Human Rights Council. Vietnam also abstained from condemning Putin's annexation on October 12.

Fulcrum analytics argue that the neutral stance the Vietnamese are trying to maintain masks their endorsement of Russia’s war crimes. Since the USSR, the Russians have been supplying Vietnam with weapons and can therefore expect understanding from it.

Furthermore, this is not the first time the Communist Party of Vietnam has resorted to a situational alliance with Russia on the international stage to protect the one-party rule from "Western liberal hegemony."

For example, the Yusof Ishak Institute demonstrated in a study that Vietnam and Russia voted exactly opposite to the U.S. on all resolutions of the General Assembly related to the human rights discourse.

Furthermore, RFA claims that Vietnam’s state-controlled media are spreading Russian propaganda, and the nation is susceptible to it.

Indonesia: a "bridge of peace" or pragmatic approach?

Indonesia condemned Putin’s aggression and annexation but abstained when Russia was expelled from the UN Human Rights Council. Photo: Pixabay

Indonesia condemned Putin’s aggression and annexation but abstained when Russia was expelled from the UN Human Rights Council. Photo: Pixabay

The website of the Embassy of Ukraine in the Republic of Indonesia says:

Quote"The Republic of Indonesia remains the biggest trade partner of Ukraine in the region of Southeast Asia."

Ukrainian exports to Indonesia are mostly agricultural and metallurgical products, while the imports from Indonesia are mostly palm oil, products of the electronic industry, cocoa, footwear, paper, and cardboard.

The Diplomat observers claim that Indonesia employs "empty rhetoric", insisting on the territorial integrity of Ukraine but refraining from condemning Russia for breaching it.

Instead, the country’s leader, Joko Widodo, calls for Southeast Asia to become a "bridge of peace" between Moscow and Kyiv. However, his personal efforts have been limited to meetings with his Russian and Ukrainian colleagues.

TVP correspondents suggest that the president primarily aims at securing Indonesia’s leadership status among developing economies, as he wants to improve its political, economic, and social situation amid the global turbulence rather than help the Russians and Ukrainians reconcile.

Political scientists at Fulcrum associate Indonesia’s pragmatic approach with the fact that Indonesia has little influence in other parts of the world, even the Middle East but especially Europe. As a result, interfering in the Russo-Ukrainian conflict is not only against its interests, but also beyond its capabilities.

As for the resolutions of the UN General Assembly condemning the Russian invasion, Indonesia supported them both on March 2 and March 24. At the same time, the country abstained from voting on the suspension of Russia’s membership in the UN Human Rights Council on April 7, but condemned the annexation of Ukrainian regions on October 12.

Indonesia, the largest Southeast Asian country, tried to act as a mediator when the supply of food on the global market was jeopardized. However, despite demands from Western countries, the president of Indonesia invited Vladimir Putin to take part in the G20 meeting in Jakarta on November 15–16, 2022.

Olexiy Haran

Olexiy Haran

professor of political science at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy

Myanmar: a junta allied with the aggressor state

Myanmar openly supports Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. Photo: Pixabay

Myanmar openly supports Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. Photo: Pixabay

The Embassy of Ukraine in the Kingdom of Thailand is in charge of protecting the rights and interests of Ukrainian citizens in Myanmar. Its website says only about the Ukrainian exports, which consist primarily of animal and plant fats and oils as well as grain. There have been no imports into Ukraine from Myanmar.

However, the site notes that "given the drastic change in the country’s domestic political situation, the trade turnover between Ukraine and Myanmar decreased significantly in 2021."

In February of that year, a junta seized power in Myanmar in a coup. Despite this, its relations with both Russia and Ukraine remained unchanged, as both countries continued to supply it with weapons and military equipment, disregarding the arms embargo imposed by the west.

Meanwhile, the self-proclaimed government of Myanmar officially sided with the aggressor state in February, justifying the war by the "consolidation of Russia's sovereignty."

Reporters from Myanmar Now admit that it was an expected response as Myanmar is connected to Russia not only by military supplies but also military training, to say nothing of a natural affinity between the two authoritarian regimes.

Interestingly, Myanmar has nevertheless supported the UN General Assembly resolution of March 2 condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the March 24 resolution urging Russia to withdraw its troops from Ukraine, as well as the April 7 resolution on expelling Russia from the UN Human Rights Council. It also condemned Putin’s annexation on October 12.

Oleksii Haran, professor of political science at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, explained this paradox to The Page by the fact that representatives of Myanmar to the United Nations remained uncontrolled by the junta, and the current regime failed to replace them:

Quote"Therefore, Myanmar votes to condemn the Russian aggression at the UN, although the actual position of the leaders of this country is completely different. Russia supplies them with weapons and supports the dictatorship, as does China. That’s why Myanmar endorses both Russia’s and China's actions."

However, Volodymyr Dubovyk, director of the Center for International Studies, told The Page that Ukraine shouldn’t be too concerned over the rapprochement between some Southeast Asian countries and Russia.

Volodymyr Dubovyk
Volodymyr Dubovyk
director of the Center for International Studies

The East Asian actor that is significant for us is China. It’s important that they no longer actively support Russia: they don’t supply anything that could help the Russians continue fighting on a large scale. Such China’s position is more or less acceptable for us.

There are also other actors in the Asian regions, among which I would highlight Japan and South Korea. These are the countries that actively support us, both diplomatically and with humanitarian aid, and maybe even with military aid. For example, South Korea can help us through Poland, which is now establishing close relations with it.

In general, countries in this region are important for us and can become our influential allies in trade, humanitarian aid, and security in the future. In the coming years, they may also join the security guarantees for Ukraine in a certain format.

The Page
Comment The Page

Among actors in the Asian region, Ukraine receives active support from Japan and South Korea. Other countries could also change their positions in the coming years.

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