Tuesday, 21 May, 2024

The Russia-Ukraine crisis is a bitter pill for ASEAN

The conflict shows that the regional order, particularly around the South China Sea, may not be sustainable if agreements are viewed as “mere words” on a piece of paper.

As the Ukraine-Russia conflict unfolds and war looms over Europe, the consequences are far-reaching, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) region is not spared.

As ASEAN is invariably touted as the most successful regional project after the European Union, its reaction to crises is more often than not under international scrutiny.

Compared with the European Union and other Western countries, ASEAN member states expressed concern at the state level to various degrees. Likewise, the United Nations General Assembly vote, during an emergency session condemning Russia’s aggression, demonstrated divisions among ASEAN countries. Only Vietnam and Laos abstained, while others supported the resolution.

The first joint ASEAN statement highlights the importance of the foundations of international law, peace and security, which remain crucial to the state’s sovereignty.

Released a few days after the start of Russia’s operation in Ukraine, it reads: “We call on all relevant parties to exercise maximum restraint and make the utmost effort to pursue dialogue through all channels, including diplomatic means, to contain the situation, to de-escalate tensions, and to seek peaceful resolution in accordance with the international laws, the principles of the United Nations Charter and the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia."

It is worth analysing the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC), which is one of the bloc’s recipes for peace, with the fundamental principles being “settlement of differences or disputes by peaceful means” and the “renunciation of the threat or use of force.”

In hindsight, the threat of external intervention had always been the primary concern of ASEAN member states.

ASEAN itself was established in 1967 at the peak of communism and was committed to projecting the Southeast Asia region as a neutral zone.

Even today, in a period of heightened competition between the United States and China, ASEAN has consistently maintained that the bloc remains neutral.

The TAC, thus far, has enabled countries to keep conflicts under control and reduce mutual distrust. Since the TAC has been in place, the region is yet to see any severe incident threatening regional peace and stability.

This explains, in part, East Asia peace, which denotes the experience of an extraordinary period of peace that the region has enjoyed since the 1980s. This is also why the TAC template is seen as an appropriate tool to be employed in governing ASEAN relations with extra-regional countries, either as dialogue partners such as Russia, development partners or observers.

In fact, the most recent upcoming admissions, Denmark, Greece, the Netherlands, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, also need to sign the TAC.

While the TAC has laid the foundation for peace, which has steered the ASEAN region towards peace and stability over the years, the Russia-Ukraine conflict shows the limits of sustaining regional or extra-regional orders based on — what are considered by some states to be — mere words on a piece of paper.

For one, the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, as endorsed by the United States, Russia and Britain, collectively agreed to respect Ukraine’s “independence and sovereignty” as well as “to refrain from the threat or use of force.”

Yet, as Ukraine actively sought to be part of NATO, Putin annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 while at the same time supporting the Luhansk and Donetsk separatist movements.

Subsequently, the Minsk Agreement came in as a peace pact signed between Kiev and Moscow in 2015 in a bid to come to a ceasefire agreement.

And yet today, Russia has taken military action, and its troops are now moving towards the capital.

The current situation in Ukraine now presents hard truths to ASEAN. ASEAN places universally-accepted principles such as non-use of force and preventive diplomacy through dialogues in its declaration and charter, but this may not suffice.

Indeed, this may make for a jittery ASEAN, with the South China Sea issue becoming a case in point, particularly for the maritime-based ASEAN member states.

As the South China Sea is a resource-rich and strategically important waterway crisscrossed by overlapping claims, ASEAN and China signed a Declaration on the Conduct of Parties (DOC) in 2002. The declaration, among others, aims to manage tensions in the contested area. But over time, it has become apparent that the declaration has very little impact on the overall stability in the South China Sea.

China, for one,continues its militarisation efforts that have transformed artificial islands into military-sized runways, anti-missile weapons and other platforms. Not to mention the frequent presence ofmaritime militia by the claimants, along withvessel clashes and recurring encroachments in the disputed waterway.

Despite long-standing discussions on the Code of Conduct, otherwise known as COC, an upgraded version of the DOC with a set of norms, rules and responsibilities for conduct in the South China Sea, which was due to be concluded last year, is still stalled, due to the pandemic.

In other words, the possibility of conflict that could escalate still looms large despite the existence of numerous declarations, statements, and a codified ASEAN charter. Indeed, while ASEAN continues to reap the peace dividends, the bloc is wary of the potential spillover effects of the Russia-Ukraine crisis.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

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