“The Ukraine War” will rank in 2022’s international affairs highlights. While conflicts and wars sadly remain a regular occurrence in world politics, two factors account for the gravity and unprecedented nature of the situation in Ukraine. First, the scale and location of the conflict involved a rising number of victims, from those who became direct casualties of the war to those forced out of their homes and seeking refuge in some of Europe’s major powers. Second, the range of actors involved in the conflict, especially great powers such as Russia – a crucial country to the world’s economy.
Subsequent significant political tensions among great powers as well as the global scale of responses to the Russian aggression have had ripple effects on countries far and wide, including those in Southeast Asia, particularly Indonesia. Despite having less exposure to the Russian economy, which is facing heavy sanctions from prominent world actors, Indonesia faces a severe challenge in its attempt to settle for the most optimal diplomatic position vis-à-vis the war. In particular, Indonesia’s main battleground lies in safeguarding its G20 presidency.
The Eastward Spillover and ASEAN’s Responses
As hysteria surrounds Europe’s first full-outward in decades, the scale and location of the situation along with the intense political attention that has followed have spill-over effects on other regions. Countries around the world, including those in Southeast Asia, have been indirectly swept up in the implications of the war. On top of bearing the brunt of global-scale impacts — especially shortages in commodity supplies and commodity prices’ inflation — plenty of countries in Southeast Asia, like Indonesia, face a dilemma as to how much they should do, act, or even say in response to the crisis whilst safeguarding their constituents and national interests.
It remains to be seen how the Ukrainian war and crisis may further directly — or indirectly — affect the Indo-Pacific in the future, but some of the early impacts of the spillover already bear cause for concern. For instance, experts fear the subsequent decoupling of Russia’s presence from the global multilateral system will further isolate Moscow into relying on a few of its key allies, including China, thereby potentially escalating the already worrying trajectory of great power competition in the Indo-Pacific. Meanwhile, experts have also predicted that the US’ preoccupation with the Russian aggression in Eastern Europe may leave room for China to unchallengedly pursue its own interests in the Indo-Pacific.
While the speed and degree to which the West has reacted to the Kremlin’s aggression will also make great powers in the Indo-Pacific think twice about deploying similar measures for their security interests, there are still fears that the erosion of norms such as sovereignty and multilateral institutions’ fundamental strength (like the United Nations) could lead to similar cascading behaviour in the region. Indeed, the Indo-Pacific is ridden with areas of contentious historical claims and unsettled territorial demarcations involving great powers, such as China in the South China Sea or Russia and Japan as regards the Kuril/Northern territory islands dispute. Crucially, the weakening of norms may push countries towards self-reliance and an arms race.
Many countries around the world have struggled to retain a neutral position due to the scale of the conflict and subsequent political divide spilling over onto multilateral fora. ASEAN countries have responded in various ways: Singapore has taken a proactive stance as the only country in Southeast Asia willing to impose sanctions on Russia. For their part, Vietnam and Laos stand on the other side of the spectrum due to their traditional (and growing) ties with Russia, having abstained from the UN resolution deploring Moscow’s aggression and demanding the withdrawal of military forces. The rest of the ASEAN countries have followed the global movement to discourage Russia, floating between some form of condemnation, such as in the case of Brunei, and mild statements that stop short of de facto condemning Russia. ASEAN, by the principle of consensus, has presented safe ideas, stating concerns, calling for restraint, ceasefire, and dialogue, and emphasizing humanitarian concerns rather than politics. At the same time, the crisis would not necessarily divide ASEAN. Since they are less pressed to take a proactive stance or play a more significant role as a unit, the union risks being regarded as a lesser political force on the global stage. In the eyes of the West, at least, ASEAN will be seen less as a reliable place to draw support from as regards the safeguarding of international norms and order.
Overall, tepid responses from most ASEAN members are to be expected. The idea of persuading these countries to resort to more assertive instruments to change Russia’s behaviour is far-fetched, given the lack of a track record in using such tools and the region’s scepticism about their efficacy. Furthermore, ASEAN countries have often shied away from taking a firm position in global strategic developments, especially when they bear minor geopolitical relevance to them. In the absence of direct geopolitical interests, their policies are thus led by values. Consequently, they are also subject to much stronger considerations, such as short-term national interests and domestic welfare. Failure to describe Russia’s and Ukraine’s role in the war — or even to define the event, stopping short of calling it “war/invasion/aggression” — is also a reflection of the lack of understanding of “whose narrative to trust” in the grander timeline of events between Russia, NATO, and Ukraine. Given the lack of knowledge around the facts on the ground and the nature of the conflict, ASEAN countries saw the escalation of violent conflict as part of a more considerable great power competition, thus invoking their “neutrality.” Lest there is a unifying leadership at the regional level to galvanise regional unity, the tendency to capture short-term interests is likely to stay.
The impact on Indonesia
Countries like Indonesia are faced with a dilemma between pragmatism and ethics: either to seize the moment and capitalise on the break-in supply and financial chains triggered by sanctions or to make a moral decision and decisively respond to any side who has perpetrated actions harming Indonesia’s foreign policy interests, including violation against the principle of sovereignty.
First and foremost, sanctions have impacted — and will continue to do so in the long term — Indonesia’s economy. Albeit not as exposed to the Russian and Ukrainian economies as Europe, both Moscow and Kiev are vital economic partners for Indonesia. The former is a significant supplier of (semi-finished) iron, coal briquettes, and potassic fertilizer, according to MIT’s Observatory of Economic Complexity (OEC), with Russian exports to Jakarta reaching $671 million in 2020. It is also a significant trade partner for Indonesian palm and coconut oil, with Moscow being the 24th largest importer of Indonesian commodities (totalling $1.24 billion in 2020).
Jakarta is also a pretty strong trade partner with Ukraine, particularly as regards commodities like wheat and meslin flour, for which Kiev provides a total of 2.76 million tons worth 821 million USD just between January to November 2021. Ukraine primarily exports wheat, semi-finished iron, and hot-rolled iron and it imported $145 million worth of palm oil from Indonesia in 2020.
Due to Jakarta’s reliance on imported fossil fuels, the disruption to the global oil market due to sanctions has increased oil prices. Further sanctions may threaten its energy security and increase government subsidies on oil and gas. The crisis has also inflated food, electricity, and transportation prices.
Meanwhile, sanctions have not only indirectly hurt the Indonesian economy. Still, they may also lure it to seize specific opportunities emerging from broken trade and financial relations, which could lengthen the war. There may be a beneficial economic opportunity given the surge in Indonesian palm oil, coal, and nickel prices. For instance, Jakarta could play a role in replacing some of the supply chains that Europe must cover due to its embargo on Russian supplies. Coal has also been cited as a critical commodity that Indonesia can contribute to Europe. At the same time, however, in an attempt to address skyrocketing oil prices, Jakarta may be persuaded to purchase more oil from Russia at cheaper prices as the oil company is not sanctioned.
Realistically speaking, responding against Russia is challenging. The country holds the world’s largest nuclear weapon arsenal, with a stockpile of 4477 nuclear warheads —1588 of which are currently deployed — as of early 2022. The Russian government is also known to have been developing a nuclear modernization programme to replace old Soviet-era warheads. This alone makes it difficult for any nation to confront Russia directly. An isolated Kremlin has also shown distaste for critics, hinting to governments that an unfavourable stance against them would make or break relations. Against this backdrop, multilateral organizations’ effectiveness in solving the crisis — such as the UN Security Council — is in question due to their lack of representation and effective mechanism to handle situations involving a member state as a possible perpetrator.
Moreover, Southeast Asian countries’ difficulty in taking a position vis-à-vis the war is also caused by the lack of understanding of the root of the problem in Ukraine. As a country in a region championing neutrality amid great power competition, enjoying ties with both the West and Russia, Indonesians are forced to compare and contrast different claims and media reports and discern media framings from facts. The weakening of sovereignty at the global level, epitomised by the common occurrence of great powers’ foreign interventions, initially gave some resonance to Russia’s framing of its action as a pre-emptive mission to demilitarize a neighbouring country deemed to have been on the verge of being aggressive towards the nation. Instead of Russian aggression, therefore, Indonesians tend to view the war as a NATO-Russia conflict.
Indeed, rightly so, the first thing Indonesians point out is the so-called Western hypocrisy in how this conflict is being treated compared to those outside the first world or those caused (or induced by) great powers like the US(e.g., Iraq). However, while many believe this should mean that Southeast Asians or Indonesians ought to treat all aggressions the same way, more pragmatic leaders have avoided tendentious actions to avoid harming their own national interests.
Nevertheless, Jakarta cannot afford to remain silent. For countries like Indonesia, geographically positioned away from the centre of the war, recent political divides and frictions could derail some of the most critical aspects of its foreign policy agenda regarding the region and the globe.
Indonesia’s primary focus is the G20 presidency, which it sees as a forum to address the global post-COVID recovery gap as representative of a developing economy and to promote its interest in leveraging Indonesia’s international recognition as a leading emerging economy, as well as its readiness for the return of investments, tourism, and attention towards Indonesia and Southeast Asia as a whole.
Jakarta has to manoeuvre itself between remaining principled whilst also delicately accommodative as a host to prevent a failed G20 summit after the country long hoped to gain prestige from it. The summit’s agenda would require the cooperation of both developed and developing nations. Still, with the disconnect in countries’ attention and significant countries’ reluctance to sideline the crisis in Europe, the agenda risks the threat of deadlock. As such, to secure the attendance of the world’s leading economies’ leaders and prevent disastrous hosting, Indonesia has tried to accommodate common interests by also inviting Ukraine as an observer.
As the host, Indonesia could include agendas such as limiting the fallout of sanctions or avoiding a further decline of the global economic recovery to avoid being judged as “conducting business as usual” or “trying to sweep the issue under the rug”. Nevertheless, given the challenges to cooperation and participation within such a hostile high-level environment and the pressure to include (or exclude) topics related to the war, Indonesia faces a massive challenge to its diplomatic leadership. Without proactive diplomacy from Indonesia’s foreign policy leaders, who are already under the strain of issues closer to home — such as Myanmar — Jakarta can expect a less significant return on its investment from the forum. As fallouts of the war are rippling over multiple multilateral fora, ASEAN countries — including Cambodia as ASEAN Chairman, Thailand as APEC’s host, and Indonesia as the G20 host — are challenged with proving the weight of Southeast Asia’s agency in global problems.