Nikkei Asia
May 6, 2022

ASEAN’s Ukraine split shows desire for space between powers: envoy

The divided response by members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shows they are seeking a “third space” in diplomacy as they strive to avoid taking sides in the competition among big powers….

Professor Chan Heng Chee, ambassador-at-large for the city-state’s [Singapore’s] Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told Nikkei Asia in an interview that countries are increasingly adopting limited positions on specific key issues….

In the case of the Ukraine war, she said that if the first two “spaces” include U.S.-led critics of the invasion and the Russia-friendly camp exemplified by China, most ASEAN members would fall into a third category. Their positions might lean toward either side, but they stop short of fully backing one over the other….

Even before war broke out in Europe, ASEAN states were wrestling with how to navigate U.S.-China tensions amid growing pressure to align themselves with either the world’s No. 1 or No. 2 economy. Their reactions to the conflict may be indicative of how they intend to cope with that larger challenge, give themselves room to maneuver and ensure no single power dominates.

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The envoy, who was formerly Singapore’s ambassador to the U.S. as well as its permanent representative to the United Nations, noted that among ASEAN countries, Indonesia, Brunei and the Philippines have condemned the attack on Ukraine without naming Russia as the aggressor.

Myanmar, Vietnam and Laos – three countries that have some of the closest ties to Moscow in Southeast Asia – have reacted differently, though not uniformly. Myanmar’s military rulers have vocally supported the invasion. Vietnam and Laos abstained from a U.N. vote condemning Russia.