Singapore and Indonesia condemned the violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity on Thursday, after Russia invaded the former Soviet Republic, but much of the rest of Southeast Asia was muted in its reaction to the development.
Russian forces invaded Ukraine early on Thursday in what the European Union foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell on Twitter called “among the darkest hours of Europe since the Second World War.”
Missiles rained down on Ukrainian targets as columns of troops poured across the country’s borders on three sides, Reuters reported. At least 40 Ukrainian soldiers were killed Thursday, according to AP.
Singapore said the city-state was “gravely concerned” by Russia’s announcement of what it called a “special military operation” in Ukraine’s Donbas region.
“Singapore strongly condemns any unprovoked invasion of a sovereign country under any pretext. We reiterate that the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine must be respected,” the ministry said in a statement.
“We hope military actions will cease immediately; and urge a peaceful settlement of the dispute, in accordance with the UN Charter and international law.”
Indonesia’s foreign ministry said in a statement that Jakarta was concerned about “the escalation of the armed conflict in Ukraine” because it endangers the people and peace in the Asian region.
“Affirming that international law and the United Nations charter regarding the territorial integrity of a country must be adhered to, and condemning any action that clearly constitutes a violation of the territory and sovereignty of a country,” ministry spokesman Teuku Faizasyah read out from the statement.
Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo posted on Twitter – without referring to Russia or Ukraine: “Stop the war. War brings misery to mankind and puts the whole world at risk.”
The Ukrainian envoy to Indonesia urged stronger words and deeds from Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s largest country and the world’s third largest democracy.
“[W]e also expect Indonesia, like other countries in the world, to impose sanctions and also provide deep criticism and condemn Russia's aggression,” envoy Vasyl Hamianin said Thursday in Jakarta.
“I think that if Indonesia speaks up, no one, no country, no region, no leader in the world would dare to ignore it.”
Indonesia currently holds the presidency of the G-20 – which groups the world’s 19 biggest economies and the EU – and this creates a dilemma when it comes to responding to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, an analyst told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.
Indonesia “will refrain from commenting because we want the G-20 to run well,” Teuku Rezasyah, a professor of international politics at Padjadjaran University in Bandung, told BenarNews.
“The G-20 meeting in Bali will be attended by leaders of the U.S., Russia, and the European Union. So, Indonesia needs to make a statement that won’t be interpreted as taking sides. …As president of the G-20, Indonesia has a strategic position, but it also poses a dilemma.”
‘We do not get involved’
Meanwhile, other members of the Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) delivered tamer reactions, perhaps because the credo of the regional bloc is non-interference in the internal affairs of other nations.
Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob told a press conference Thursday that he regretted the “the latest developments in Ukraine.”
“ASEAN, as an organization of free countries, agrees that we do not get involved in the issues of foreign countries,” he said at a press conference in Cambodia, which he was visiting.
“[Cambodian] PM Hun San also agrees that we will not be making any statements unless ASEAN countries discuss the matter and come to a consensus.”
The Philippines said its main concern was the safety of Filipinos in Ukraine, while Thailand said it was following the developments in Ukraine “with deep concern.”
ASEAN member Vietnam, Moscow’s closest partner in Southeast Asia, has remained passive, giving no substantive comment besides a formulaic call for restraint, reported Radio Free Asia (RFA), a BenarNews sister entity.
In a departure from before, though, the Vietnamese media is covering the situation in Ukraine without their usual pro-Russia bias, RFA said. Russia is Vietnam’s most important defense partner and the main provider of weapons and equipment to the Vietnamese armed forces.
ASEAN has yet to issue a statement about Ukraine, although news agency Reuters got a look at what it said was a draft statement by the regional bloc. It said the situation must see a “peaceful resolution in accordance with international law and the United Nations Charter.”
Past and future implications
While striking, the lack of a strong response from Southeast Asia is not new, analyst Zachary Abuza wrote Tuesday in a commentary for BenarNews. He cited Moscow’s 2014 invasion of Crimea as one example.
“The only reason that Southeast Asia was at all pulled into the situation was the July 17, 2014 downing of Malaysia Airlines flight 17 by a Russian-made BUK surface-to-air missile that killed all 298 passengers and crew,” Abuza, a professor at Washington’s National War College, noted in the column.
Even then, “few in Southeast Asia showed any will to confront Russia over MH-17,” he said.
The reason for the lackluster response is that Russia is far from Southeast Asia and has few economic or political ties with the region, the columnist wrote.
But Southeast Asian nations should take a stronger stance, he argued.
“[T]his is something that creates a very dangerous legal precedent, especially for an assertive country like China that has repeatedly pushed for its own interpretations of international law, most clearly in the South China Sea.”
Six Asian governments have territorial claims or maritime boundaries in the South China Sea that overlap with the sweeping claims of China. While Indonesia does not regard itself as party to the South China Sea dispute, Beijing claims historic rights to parts of that sea overlapping Indonesia's exclusive economic zone.
China has never accepted the 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which said that Beijing’s expansive “historical claims” in the South China Sea have no legal basis.
And stability in Southeast Asia has been threatened lately with alleged incursions by Chinese vessels in the exclusive economic zones of Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia in the South China Sea.
BenarNews reporters Nontarat Phaicharoen and Wilawan Watcharasakwet in Bangkok, Suganya Lingan and Muzliza Mustafa in Kuala Lumpur, and Jeoffrey Maitem and Basilio Sepe in Manila contributed to this report. BenarNews is an RFA-affiliated online news service.