Despite U.S. President Joe Biden's urging that Southeast Asian countries take a firmer stance on the Ukraine war, the U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit ended Friday without condemnation of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, a sign of the geopolitical complexities in the region as the administration seeks to broaden the coalition against Moscow beyond Europe.
"With regard to Ukraine, as for all nations, we continue to reaffirm our respect for sovereignty, political independence and territorial integrity," the summit communique said, followed by calls for an immediate cessation of hostilities and compliance with the U.N. charter and international law.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations has avoided public criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion. ASEAN operates by consensus, and views on Ukraine vary among the bloc, which includes countries with deep economic and military relations with Moscow — such as Myanmar, Vietnam and Laos — and Singapore, the only one in the group to sanction Russia over the invasion. Others, including Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, seek neutrality.
In his summit remarks, Biden did not mention the Ukraine invasion at all. "An Indo-Pacific that is free and open, stable and prosperous, and resilient and secure is what we're all seeking," he said, referring to his administration's strategy geared toward responding to the challenges posed by China's increasing economic clout and military ambitions in the region.
The administration understands that ASEAN countries are vital partners in its regional rivalry against China, said Stacie Goddard, Mildred Lane Kemper professor of political science at Wellesley College. "It's not willing to sour relations over a statement about Russian aggression," she told VOA.
Even states with weaker ties to Moscow see Russia's role as regional balancer. And as with U.S.-China competition, they would prefer not to have their interests damaged by competition between major powers.
"Fundamentally, for most ASEAN countries, the invasion is seen as far away and not worth taking a stand over," Brian Harding, an expert on Southeast Asia at the U.S. Institute for Peace, told VOA.
U.S. officials have underscored that Ukraine is high on the summit agenda. But those conversations have not been made public.
"You don't invite eight guests to fly halfway around the world to make them uncomfortable in front of a bunch of cameras," said Gregory Poling, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Poling told VOA that the communique was stronger than earlier ASEAN foreign ministers' statements on Ukraine, none of which included language about "respect for sovereignty, political independence and territorial integrity," which he said are implicit condemnations of the Russian invasion.
However, Sarang Shidore, director of studies at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, argued that Biden's concession on Russia with ASEAN demonstrates that his framing of a global battle between "democracies vs. autocracies" has few takers in the region. The U.S. should expand its influence "through a confident geo-economic strategy rather than trying to exclude other players geopolitically," Shidore told VOA. The U.S. is not offering market access through a free-trade agreement, which is what many in the region desire.
A guarded Indonesia ahead of G-20
"Our hope is to see the war in Ukraine stop as soon as possible and (that) we give the peaceful resolution of a conflict a chance to succeed," Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said Friday, with no mention of Russia.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo, rotating president of the Group of 20 (G-20) — the grouping of the world's largest economies — has resisted pressure to exclude Putin from the November summit he is set to host in Bali, despite the threat of a boycott by Biden and other Western leaders.
Jen Psaki, outgoing White House press secretary, declined to respond to VOA's question on whether Biden pressed Widodo to disinvite Putin, reiterating only that Biden maintains his position that the G-20 "should not be business as usual."