The Latest on Southeast Asia: March 2, 2023
February 24 marked one year since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The war’s impacts on food and energy security have been felt worldwide, and Southeast Asia is no exception. Public opinion in the region appears more sympathetic to Ukraine than Russia, but that is far from universal. And the region’s governments have not been united in their responses. On the anniversary of the invasion, the United Nations General Assembly voted to condemn the invasion and called for an immediate withdrawal of Russian troops. More than 140 countries supported the resolution, including all of Southeast Asia except Laos and Vietnam, which abstained.
There have been four UN resolutions on the war since March 2022, and Southeast Asian countries have had a mixed voting record. Only the Philippines and Myanmar, whose seat is held by a representative of the ousted National League for Democracy-led government, have supported all four resolutions. Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore voted yes on three but abstained from an April 2022 resolution to suspend Russia from the UN Human Rights Council. Laos and Vietnam did the opposite, abstaining from three and voting no on the April resolution. Thailand supported two but abstained from the April vote and another in October condemning Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian territories. That was ostensibly a failed attempt to ensure President Vladimir Putin’s attendance at last year’s APEC Leaders’ Summit in Bangkok.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) issued three statements on the conflict in February, March, and April 2022 which called on “all parties” to exercise restraint and resolve the conflict peacefully. None mentioned Russia or Ukraine by name. Singapore remains the only country that has joined international sanctions against Russia. As host of the G20, Indonesia was lauded for successfully hosting the Leaders’ Summit in November despite tensions over Russia’s inclusion. It managed a joint communiqué in which “most members” condemned the war in Ukraine.
The war, meanwhile, is impacting energy security across Southeast Asia with knock-on effects for manufacturing and living costs. Persistently high LNG prices are forcing countries like Indonesia and Vietnam to reconsider previous plans to phase out coal in favor of a mix of gas and renewables. Vietnam plans to increase electricity prices for the first time since 2019 after high energy costs caused record losses at state utility EVN. The price of coal on the global market has more than doubled since 2021, incentivizing increased production and, in the case of Indonesia, export.
The conflict in Ukraine, which was the world’s biggest exporter of sunflower oil, has also increased demand for palm oil as a substitute, sending prices soaring. Indonesia implemented a three-week palm oil export ban in April 2022 to preserve domestic supplies. Jakarta made food security a top priority of its G20 presidency last year, with President Joko Widodo visiting both Russia and Ukraine last June to discuss measures to stabilize global food and fertilizer prices. In December, the European Union passed a law requiring companies to prove their supply chains are free of deforestation—a longstanding problem with palm oil plantations. In response, Indonesia and Malaysia announced in early February that they will send envoys to Brussels to discuss the law’s impact on their sector.
Surging commodity prices have also led to inflated food costs across Southeast Asian countries. For instance, the high price of chicken feed pushed up poultry and egg prices in Malaysia so much that the government implemented a poultry export ban last June, instituted price caps, and is considering ways to reduce its reliance on imported corn for feed. The Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security is considering removing the caps by this summer. In the Philippines, onions have become so expensive—300 percent more than chicken and 25 percent more than beef—that the Philippine Competition Commission is investigating possible cartels in the onion industry.
With the war likely to continue on through 2023 and beyond, its repercussions will continue to hamper economic recovery, damage living standards, and complicate diplomatic priorities in Southeast Asia.
Karen Lee is a research associate with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Gregory B. Poling is a senior fellow and director for the Southeast Asia Program and the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at CSIS.
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