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InterNations
Geopolitics

Why So Many Asian Countries Are Staying Neutral On Putin

Western countries want to isolate Russia on the world stage. But for many Asian countries, the war in Ukraine is distant geographically and economically, and represents an existential debate between dictatorships and democracies.

A man takes a picture of the University of Santo Tomas Main Building where the flag of Ukraine is projected in Manila, Philippines

The University of Santo Tomas Main Building in Manila, Philippines lit up with the flag of Ukraine

Basilio Sepe/ZUMA
Yann Rousseau

-Analysis-

TOKYO — Vladimir Putin could not have put it better than Zaw Min Tun, the spokesman of the junta in power in Myanmar. “Russia has taken the necessary actions to protect and strengthen its own sovereignty," Min Tun said the day after the invasion of Ukraine. "As a great power, it ensures the balance of world forces, which allows the preservation of peace.”

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The war launched against Ukraine prompted a unanimous condemnation of Russia in Western countries and triggered a coordinated and rapid implementation of very severe sanctions. But the same cannot be said for Asia.


Moscow, which already knew it wouldn’t be reprimanded by Beijing (however embarrassed China might feel), has received very little criticism from other Asian capitals.

Few sanctions against Russia

Ten days after the start of the conflict, fewer than half a dozen countries out of 50 in the region have announced sanctions against the regime of Vladimir Putin. Their initiatives have often been less severe than those deployed by the EU and U.S. No country in the region has mentioned sending weapons or technological support to Ukrainian forces.

Japan, which was tolerant of Vladimir Putin for a long time, was one of the region’s first countries to unequivocally denounce Russia’s aggression. Following their American ally, Japan also listed a series of retaliatory measures, the effectiveness of which remains to be determined. Tokyo has notably promised to quickly freeze the assets of the Russian and Belarusian presidents in the country without clarifying whether they really have any.

The other capitals favor silence or ambiguity.

Under pressure from Washington, Seoul also implemented — after a period of uncertainty — some sanctions against Russia, which South Korea had been trying to get closer to for years.

During the first days of the invasion, Taiwan reacted quickly to deploy humanitarian aid to Ukraine, even though the island has no diplomatic relations with the eastern European country. In Southeast Asia, only Singapore has joined in the economic and financial sanctions set up by the West.

For the moment, the other capitals favor silence or ambiguity about a conflict that is deemed distant and complicated. ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, didn’t name Russia in its vague statement, which called for “dialogue” in Ukraine. Ideologically agnostic, the organization, which includes democracies, authoritarian states and numerous dictatorships, has never claimed to defend any political value. Each state in the zone reacts according to its own interest without consideration for any higher principles — all being convinced that Moscow will never represent a direct threat to the region.

Low economic risks

The conflict certainly risks fueling global inflation, in particular through a rise in prices of energy and certain food items. It also threatens to disrupt the supply of certain components, but the war is taking place in a region with which Asia has only minor economic links. According to the latest calculations of the Asian Development Bank, together, Russia and Ukraine account for only 1.5% of all Asia's exports and represent only 2.5% of all its imports.

Some countries are still trying hard not to ruin their historical or strategic ties with Moscow. Vietnam, which has a very tense relationship with China, still buys most of its weapons from Russia. Indonesia, Malaysia and Myanmar have also ordered dozens of fighter planes from Russia and have thus tied themselves to its technological support for a long time. India also doesn’t want to quarrel with the Kremlin’s strongman — a potential ally to counter its Chinese rival.

Anti-war protestors  holding signs in Taipei, Taiwan, protesting against the Russian invasion of Ukraine

Anti-war protesters gathered in front of the Representative Office in Taiwan to protest against the Russian invasion of Ukraine

Brennan O'Connor/ZUMA

The China question

A large number of nations are also reluctant to take sides in a conflict that pits democracies against dictatorships. True democracies are rare in Asia and the region's leaders don’t want to take part in this almost existential debate. They fear soon finding themselves on the wrong side because of the serious “defects” of their own governance. Censored media, arrested opponents, rigged elections...

Caution is evident among the junta in Myanmar. But it also explains the indifference of Thailand, still controlled by the military, and of Hun Sen, who has been in charge of Cambodia for 37 years, or even the indifference of Vietnam and Laos, both led by communist parties. Elsewhere, Putin's image as a “strongman” — tough on his opponents and patronizing Westerners — continues to fascinate, especially in Rodrigo Duterte's Philippines.

There's another great power that wants to regain past glory.

But in the medium term, this relative Asian neutrality risks weighing on the efforts of the West, which, in the words of Joe Biden, would want Russia to become “a pariah on the international stage” — a country suffocating due to isolation. In order to rally the uncommitted capitals of the region to their cause, the U.S. and Europeans could perhaps abandon the “good and evil” discourse to remind them that the conflict in Ukraine is about respect for international laws and the protection of the sovereignty of national territories.

These are all issues that mobilize Asian governments more who often find themselves subjected — and this time much closer to their borders — to the pressure of another great power that wants to regain past glory and knows how to be aggressive in order to prevail: China.


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