Joint statements by foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian ( Asean ) on important regional and international issues are measures of the bloc’s unity and credibility. They also demonstrate how cohesive Asean is internally and how far it could go in projecting itself as an actor with a voice to be heard internationally. But as the conflict rages in Ukraine after Russia invaded the former Soviet state last week, Asean has earned more bad marks than credits for its February 26 joint statement on the crisis despite the stakes being high for it to take a firm principled stand against Moscow’s clear act of aggression, including raining missiles on Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities. The 10-member grouping’s corporate identity and its very success rely on an abiding adherence to sovereign equality, non-aggression, renunciation of the use of force and peaceful settlement of disputes. All Asean Dialogue Partners, including Russia , are also required to accede to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) – the code of conduct for interstate relations in Southeast Asia – which is firmly anchored in these cardinal principles. Yet, the Asean statement did not call out Russia’s invasion of the eastern European nation by its name and it just expressed deep concerns over “the evolving situation and armed hostilities in Ukraine” – a general description absent of legitimate value judgment over the Russian hostile acts against its neighbour. The statement also called on “all relevant parties to exercise maximum restraint” and stressed that “it is the responsibility of all parties to uphold the principles of mutual respect for the sovereignty, territorial integrity and equal rights of all nations”. Singapore to slap unilateral sanctions on Russia in ‘almost unprecedented’ move This equidistant approach in effect apportions the liability between Russia and Ukraine in equal degrees. This in turn attenuates the severity and blatancy with which Moscow has used force against Kyiv despite the latter’s plea for peace and readiness to have talks “with anybody, in any format, on any platform”. By blurring the line between the aggressor and the defender, the statement renders its invocation of “sovereignty, territorial integrity and equal rights of all nations” meaningless and pointless. As an intergovernmental organisation, Asean is often “the sum of its parts”. When the parts conflict with each other, what we have is the lowest common denominator that can amount to a zero-sum. The bloc’s declaration is in fact a zero-sum result of very divergent and conflicting positions of its member states regarding the situation in Ukraine. Singapore stood out from the rest in criticising the Russian hostilities in unequivocal terms. The city state condemned “any unprovoked invasion of a sovereign country under any pretext” and demanded that “the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine must be respected”. Indonesia chided “any action that clearly constitutes a violation of the territorial territory and sovereignty of a country” but stopped short of calling out Moscow’s actions. The position expressed by Vietnam – the largest importer of Russian arms in the region and Moscow’s ally during the Cold War – contained necessary references to “the United Nations Charter”, “self-restraint” and “dialogue”. However, it avoided making value judgment on Russia breaching the basic principles of international law. It is extremely important for Hanoi to hold these characters high given the fact that the country has been locked in a maritime territorial dispute with Beijing in the South China Sea . Malaysia and the Philippines have also adopted a neutral stance. The Myanmar military junta, which counts Russia among its key arms providers and political supporters amid its post-coup international isolation, defended the invasion as “justified”. Observers of Asean have come to terms with the grouping’s meekly centrist position on the South China Sea row amid Beijing’s growing economic and military clout in the region. Russia, however, is a marginal player in Southeast Asia’s trade and economic integration, and it figures remotely in most people’s strategic thinking. In the State of Southeast Asia 2020 survey by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, a Singaporean think tank, Russia ranked last in economic influence and second last in strategic-political influence in the region – well behind China, the US, Japan and the European Union. Russia’s Ukraine attack and the limits of China’s foreign policy Russia matters most as a major weapons supplier to some Southeast Asian nations, including Vietnam, Indonesia and Myanmar, which explains why they chose not to antagonise Moscow. These internal interests aside, their ambivalence towards Russia’s act of aggression is driven by a lack of empathy for what they see as a distant conflict as described by Philippine Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, “We are not located beside Ukraine and it’s none of our business to meddle in whatever they’re doing in Europe.” Yet, the Ukraine conflict – geographically remote as it may seem – holds striking parallels to the security dynamics in Southeast Asia where the interests of great powers also intersect and their visions of regional order increasingly collide, adding complications to the inherent strategic incongruence within the region. Furthermore, holding on to the basic principles of international law is of paramount importance to Asean members to mediate the vast power asymmetry among themselves and between these states and larger powers. This in turn has provided the bloc with the normative influence that is widely acknowledged in Asia-Pacific and Asean member states could have utilised the high moral ground of their regional grouping to go beyond their national positions and mount a robust principled stand to denounce the use of force and the aggression against a sovereign nation. Instead, they opted for a minimalist approach, shying away from speaking truth to power. As countries around the world reflect on the Russian offensive in Ukraine and what it means for their own national security, Asean member states should act with strategic foresight rather than with a parochial mindset. Otherwise, as Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jnr warned last year, Asean is turning out as “a bunch of guys who always agree with each other on the worthless things.” His bluntness is very un-Asean, but it is the hard reality that the grouping is confronting with – its voice is often mute on issues that really matter.