02/22/2023, 15.16
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Prices are rising, but for Southeast Asia the war in Ukraine is still far away

Except for Singapore, the only country in the region to have imposed sanctions on Russia, most SE Asian countries have not taken sides. The biggest concern is the rising cost of raw material. Several states have maintained relations with Russia, partly because of its propaganda, also relayed by China.

Milan (AsiaNews) – When Russia's "special military operation” was announced a year ago, the prevailing view in Southeast Asia was that the invasion of Ukraine would turn out to be quick like the occupation of Crimea in 2014.

Since then, the region has felt the consequences of the conflict, most notably in rising prices for food and other necessities.  Yet, the conflict is still perceived as a distant event that concerns the United States, Russia, and NATO with which the countries of the region have nothing to do.

This ambivalent attitude is echoed in several surveys and seen in many experts and diplomats who spoke to the South China Morning Post.

Although it is widely believed that Russia violated international law with its attack, support for Ukraine is less clear than in European countries precisely because of the perceived distance from the conflict, and these views have remained almost unchanged since 24 February 2022 when fighting began.

In Malaysia, 54 per cent of respondents to an Ipsos poll believe that “the problems of Ukraine are not our business, and we should not interfere”. In Thailand, 60 per cent share that view, 44 per cent in Singapore, and 48 per cent in Indonesia.

Support for sanctions is very strong in Sweden, Poland and the United Kingdom (some of the Western countries included in the survey), but does not exceed the 50 per cent threshold in Singapore (the only country in the region to have imposed sanctions against Russia), Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia.

In Asia, concern about the conflict varies considerably. A survey by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute found that only 14 per cent of respondents in Laos said they were very worried about the war, compared to 71.7 per cent in the Philippines and 61.2 per cent in Indonesia.

In one year, the region has seen the full spectrum of political reactions to the conflict, mainly due to the different relations Southeast Asian countries have with Russia.

Singapore condemned the offensive, Cambodia was "very critical", while Myanmar's military regime approved Vladimir Putin's actions.

Thailand and Malaysia have adopted a neutral stance, while Indonesia, Vietnam and Laos do not want to damage relations with Russia that go back a long time and are linked to the supply of weapons, noted Ian Storey, of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Russia sold US$ 7.4 billion worth of weapons to Vietnam between 1995 and 2021 and US .7 billion to Myanmar between 2001 and 2021.

While Vietnam is attempting to diversify its supply, Myanmar’s military junta has instead boosted its cooperation with Moscow, buying combat aircraft and military helicopters to crush resistance forces.

“As with US-China relations, most Southeast Asian countries want to keep on good terms with both the US and Russia, avoid becoming entangled in their rivalry and maintain their strategic autonomy,” Storey said.

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr, for example, told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that he supports Ukraine's efforts to find a peaceful solution to the war but refrained from sending military aid to avoid choosing the United States (Ukraine's ally) over China (seen as Russia's ally).

Indonesian President Joko Widodo has tried to play a leading role in mediating the conflict, and has not explicitly condemned Russian aggression.

According to Zachary Abuza, professor of strategic security at the National War College in Washington, in the case of Indonesia, President Jokowi wants to ensure a steady supply of grain and cheap oil.

For Abuza, higher costs for raw material amid high inflation is certainly important in countries where elections are scheduled this year, in particular in Thailand and Cambodia; while in Myanmar the military junta announced am election for August, but it is not yet clear how it will take place.

Meanwhile, the World Bank expects the conflict to cause a 50 per cent increase in energy prices worldwide, while food costs will rise by 20 per cent in 2023.

At present, it is hard to predict whether and how public in opinion Southeast Asia will evolve over the war in Ukraine.

In the region, views and attitudes continue to be heavily influenced by pro-Russian propaganda, often relayed by Chinese media according to which Ukraine has been infiltrated by neo-Nazis, and is host to biological laboratories funded by the United States.

Some conspiracy theories are homegrown, Storey notes, especially in Muslim majority countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, where a part of the population is critical of US hypocrisy (since it invaded Iraq and Afghanistan in the early 2000s).

These countries “see Putin’s regime as Islamic-friendly and the US as hostile to Islam,” Storey explained and are more likely to believe Russian propaganda since Russia is better known in the region than Ukraine.

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