03/21/2022, 00.00
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ASEAN’s difficulties vis-à-vis the Ukrainian crisis

by Steve Suwannarat

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations has always upheld the principle of non-interference. Apart from Singapore, no member country has imposed sanctions on Russia. Taking a stand would mean going against China, the regional bloc’s first economic partner.


Singapore (AsiaNews) – Already under strain because of civil strife in Myanmar, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) now has to cope with another fault line among its members.

Since February 1, 2021, the ten-country organisation has had to deal with the consequences of the coup d'état by Myanmar’s military, with some members, like Singapore, opposed to the junta, and others taking a more neutral stance.

Once again, this put the spotlight on the regional bloc’s lack of political cohesion and shared ideals, 55 years after its founding.

With a combined population of 655 million and a total GDP of US$ 3 trillion, ASEAN, which is chaired by Cambodia this year, is now trying to deal with the Ukrainian crisis and the limits of the principle of non-interference to which it has always subscribed.

Although over the decades the policy of non-interference has allowed some of its members to keep their authoritarian regimes, like Myanmar, Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia, this is now proving to be a sign of political powerlessness.

The war in Ukraine that began with Russia’s invasion on 24 February opened the eyes of the regional body as the conflict is already proving costly to Asian economies, and is expected to have repercussions also on de facto alliances, hitherto disguised by a veneer of neutrality.

ASEAN’s hesitations and the lack of strategic relevance as a single interlocutor are further undermining its credibility. Only Singapore has taken an open position by imposing sanctions against Russia and stopping the export of electronic products, computers and military technology to that country.

Instead, the organisation limited itself to calling on the parties to engage in dialogue to end to the conflict, perhaps aware of how little it can influence the parties’ behaviour since it has limited relations with either Russia and Ukraine.

The fear of a negative economic impact comes on top of concern that tensions between China and Taiwan could get worse, and that the conflict in Eastern Europe might herald something similar in the Taiwan Strait.

If ASEAN does take a stance against unilateral military actions by illiberal regimes, it could damage its relations with China, an essential economic partner, and – at least with respect to Myanmar and Cambodia – a vital support for their international legitimacy.

For some observers, the risk is high that the United States, the European Union and other important international players might review their positions vis-à-vis ASEAN and its failure to defend human rights in the currently ongoing international crises.

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See also
Myanmar might forgo ASEAN chairmanship
ASEAN agrees on Human Rights body
ASEAN members fear Chinese juggernaut
ASEAN to protect human rights but only with consent of violating nation
Preah Vihear: Indonesian team to monitor fragile truce between Bangkok and Phnom Penh


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