Mixed reactions from Asian nations to the invasion of Ukraine

SINGAPORE — Much of the world has united against Russia following its foray into Ukraine. The emissaries left the meetings rather than listen to a senior Russian diplomat speak. Western nations have been pretty much on board with international sanctions. Bartenders ban Russian vodka.

In Asia, the reaction was much more mixed.

Generals in Myanmar called Russia’s actions “the right thing to do”. India abstained in a UN Security Council resolution condemning the attack. China has refused to call the assault on Ukraine an invasion. And in Vietnam, Vladimir V. Putin, the Russian President, is affectionately known as “Uncle Putin”.

While most US allies in the region have aligned themselves, authoritarian governments and those with weaker ties to the West have been more reluctant to act on the conflict in Ukraine. In the entire Asia-Pacific region, only Japan, Singapore, South Korea and Australia have accepted international sanctions against Moscow. Taiwan, the autonomous territory China claims as its own, has also agreed to sanctions and voiced support for Ukraine.

The patchy response is unlikely to outweigh the onslaught of Western anger, but it could test the limits of President Biden’s promise to make Mr Putin an “international pariah”.

Russia’s influence in Asia is minimal compared to that of the United States, although it has grown in recent years, with particular emphasis on arms sales. Already, the Economy Ministry in Moscow announced last Friday that it would seek to expand economic and trade ties with Asia to help offset Western sanctions.

“I don’t think we will shun Russia,” said Bilahari Kausikan, Singapore’s former ambassador to Russia. “It’s still a great country and it’s a nuclear weapon state.” He is also a permanent member of the Security Council, a status that is unlikely to change, Kausikan said.

Russia has sold fighter jets to Indonesia, Malaysia and Myanmar, but its biggest customer in Southeast Asia is Vietnam. From 2000 to 2019, 84% of Vietnam’s arms imports came from Russia, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

In its bid to counter China, Vietnam bought billions of dollars worth of Russian artillery, planes and submarines, turning its army into one of South Asia’s most capable fighting forces. -Is while making itself dependent on Moscow for years to come.

In India, Moscow has been considered a reliable military partner for decades. New Delhi is the world’s second largest importer of Russian weapons, which account for about half of its military supplies. When Mr Putin visited New Delhi late last year, Russia detailed the sale of a $5.4 billion missile defense system to the country.

India has been careful not to condemn Russia over Ukraine and upset a tried friendship as China threatens to encroach on its northeastern border. Moscow has repeatedly used its veto in the Security Council to block resolutions critical of India over Kashmir, a disputed territory India shares with Pakistan. In return, India abstained from a UN resolution condemning Moscow for its annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Indian officials said last week that they could even help Russia find workarounds to the new sanctions by setting up rupee accounts to continue trading with Moscow, as it did after China’s annexation. Crimea.

“Which side is India on? said Pankaj Saran, India’s former ambassador to Russia. “We are on our side. The cyclical bursts of Cold War antagonism are boring.

Indonesia, like India, has significantly strengthened its economic and defense ties with Russia over the years. Bilateral trade between the two countries reached $2.74 billion in 2021, an increase of 42.2 percent over the previous year. Palm oil accounts for about 38% of Indonesia’s exports to Russia.

In December 2021, Jakarta hosted the first-ever joint maritime exercise between Russia and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN.

“Indonesia does not see Russia as a threat to world politics or an enemy,” said Dinna Prapto Raharja, associate professor of international relations at Bina Nusantara University in Jakarta. “Unilateral sanctions limit the chances of negotiation and reinforce the feeling of insecurity in the affected countries,” she added.

Last Thursday, Teuku Faizasyah, a spokesperson for the Indonesian Foreign Ministry, hinted that the country had no intention of imposing sanctions on Moscow, saying it “would not blindly follow the measures taken by a other country”.

While the United States was quick to criticize Russia for its policies, Mr. Putin’s brand of authoritarian politics appealed to many countries in Asia, and particularly in Southeast Asia, where the strongman rule is often favored.

In one 2017 Pew Research Center Global Survey, more than half of respondents in the Philippines and Vietnam said they trust Mr. Putin. At the height of the pandemic, Moscow donated Covid-19 vaccines to the Philippines, Vietnam and Laos.

“I’m a big fan of Uncle Putin because he always takes drastic measures,” said Tran Trung Hieu, 28, an independent filmmaker in Hanoi, using the same term of respect locals use for Ho Chi Minh. , the revolutionary who led independence. movement in Vietnam.

Rodrigo Duterte, the President of the Philippines, has called Mr Putin his “favorite hero”. The Philippines said Monday it condemned the invasion of Ukraine but did not name Russia. Vietnam last week refrained from naming Russia as an aggressor and instead called on “all parties concerned to exercise restraint.”

Two editors of a Vietnamese online magazine and Vietnamese national television said they were told to self-censor their reporting on the war, including reducing the scope and frequency of coverage, and banning the word “invasion”. Both asked to remain anonymous for fear of government reprisals.

But no Southeast Asian country has been more sympathetic to Russia since the invasion than Myanmar, where the military seized power in a coup 13 months ago. Senior military officers from both countries, including General Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar’s regime leader, exchanged visits several times last year.

Last week, Major General Zaw Min Tun, the junta’s spokesman, told the New York Times that Moscow had “done its part to maintain its sovereignty” and that the attack was “the right thing to do”. . Russia continued to sell arms to Myanmar after the coup, despite warnings that a humanitarian crisis was unfolding.

On Monday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called for an international tribunal to investigate Russia for war crimes, but Asian governments have long realized that talking openly about human rights abuses risks harm. invite unwanted scrutiny of repressive policies at home.

Thailand, a treaty ally of the United States, said little about the war except that this supported “ongoing efforts to find a peaceful settlement”. Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, described the position as “sitting on the fence and not wanting to get off the fence at all”.

“When Thailand engages overseas, it worries, it fears there will be questions about domestic issues in Thailand,” Thitinan said. The country has cracked down on recent nationwide protests by arresting dozens of youths.

Even among staunch US allies in Asia, the decision to punish Russia has involved some hesitation.

South Korea, after a delay, said it would apply sanctions imposed by the United States and Europe, but would not enact its own sanctions. Officials said the country should “keep in mind that our trade relationship with Russia is growing.” In contrast, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida was quick to condemn Russian aggression and announce sanctions.

In an interview, Kateryna Zelenko, Ukraine’s ambassador to Singapore, said a refusal to stop Russia would ultimately jeopardize global security. “It should be clear that remaining silent and remaining neutral” is a form of consent, Ms Zelenko said.

She added: “We really hope that everyone will soon understand that in this terrible war, no one will be able to sit still.”

Sui Lee Wee reported from Singapore, Emilie Schmall from New Delhi and Samir Yasir from Srinagar, India. Vo Kieu Bao Uyen contributed reporting from Ho Chi Minh City, and Muktita Suhartono from Bangkok.

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