Several ASEAN countries have procured weaponry, surveillance equipment and defense systems from Israel, to bolster their military capabilities. Furthermore, certain nations within the ASEAN community share mutual interests in counterterrorism initiatives and intelligence exchange
Om Prakash Das
Southeast Asia has also been affected by the rapid sequence of events that began on 7 October when Hamas launched its daring attack on Israel. ASEAN member states official positions and statements concerning the ongoing violent conflict between Israel and Hamas reflect varying stances regarding the sensitive issue, influenced by historical, domestic, demographic and strategic factors.
At the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)-ASEAN Summit convened on 20 October 2023 in Riyadh, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the participating leaders engaged in comprehensive discussions and articulated profound concerns about recent developments in the Middle East. These leaders unequivocally condemned all acts of aggression targeting civilian populations and underscored the pressing imperative for a sustainable and enduring ceasefire. They called upon all parties to facilitate efficient access to humanitarian assistance, relief supplies and essential services. They also urged ‘the immediate and unconditional release of civilian hostages and detainees, especially women, children, the sick and the elderly’.
In another statement issued on the same date (20 October), ASEAN Foreign Ministers called for the full respect of international humanitarian law. They reaffirmed the multilateral group’s “support for a negotiated two-state solution that would allow both Israelis and Palestinians to live side by side in peace and security consistent with relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions”.
As for individual country responses, on 17 October 2023, Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim spoke to Ismail Haniyeh, the political bureau chief of Hamas, and expressed support for an immediate ceasefire in the Gaza Strip. Malaysia’s government stated that it was “deeply concerned over the loss of so many lives in and around the Gaza Strip”. Without naming Israel, Kuala Lumpur also accused the world’s “flagrant hypocrisy in dealing with any regime that practices apartheid and blatantly violates human rights and international law”.
The Indonesian Foreign Ministry asserted that “the root of the conflict, namely the occupation of the Palestinian territories by Israel, must be resolved, by the parameters agreed upon by the U.N.”. Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs strongly condemned the Hamas “terror attacks”. Both the Singaporean President and Prime Minister sent letters to Palestinian leaders, expressing condolences for the increasing casualties in the Gaza Strip, and have pledged humanitarian aid worth US$ 300,000.
About 30,000 Filipinos work in Israel, including around 150 migrant workers in Gaza. Tragically, some Filipino workers have lost their lives during recent attacks, and the process of evacuation of citizens is ongoing. President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has expressed clear support for Israel, one of the country’s close allies. Marcos stated that “the Philippines understands the right of states to self-defense in light of external aggression, as recognized in the United Nations Charter”.
The Israel–Hamas conflict has raised concerns in Thailand, primarily due to the unfortunate deaths and abductions of Thai migrant workers. There were approximately 30,000 Thai nationals in Israel, with a smaller number also present in Gaza. More than 30 Thai nationals lost their lives. Thailand has expressed its condemnation of “the killing of innocent civilians, regardless of nationality, by any group and for whatever reason”. Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Jakkapong Sangmanee urged for “a solution that would allow Palestine and Israel to coexist”. Protests were also organized against the ongoing bombardment in the Gaza Strip.
Cambodia chose not to participate in the voting on the United Nations General Assembly resolution on 27 October. The Cambodian Foreign Ministry condemned “all acts of terrorism and violence against innocent civilians” and urged for the “upholding international humanitarian law”.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic came out with a brief statement on 10 October urging “all parties concerned to resume a negotiation process and restore mutual trust for solving the long-overdue Palestinian issue through the establishment of two sovereign states coexisting peacefully in line with the relevant UN resolutions and international law”. Laos in the past has consistently demonstrated support for the Palestinian cause.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Vietnam expressed “profound concern over the escalating violence between Hamas and Israel that has led to massive civilian casualties as the Gaza strip saw the deadliest day in over 50 years”. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Myanmar issued a two-line press release, wherein it urged “concerned parties to exercise restraint and seek a peaceful resolution”. Notably, the release did not specify the names of any of the parties involved.
Israel has maintained diplomatic relations with the majority of ASEAN member states. Myanmar (1953), Thailand (1954), the Philippines (1957), Cambodia (1960) and Singapore (1968–69) were among the earliest countries to establish diplomatic ties with Israel. Vietnam (1993) and Laos (1993) have more recently initiated formal diplomatic relations with Israel.
Israel has had deep relations with the Philippines since its formation, which has expanded to include many dimensions today. The Philippines was among the 33 countries that supported the 1947 UN vote that led to the creation of Israel. Full diplomatic relations between the two countries were realized upon the signing of the Treaty of Friendship on 26 February 1958. The Israeli Embassy in Manila and the Philippine Embassy in Tel Aviv were both opened in 1962. Strategic and defense ties have progressively become stronger.
Several ASEAN countries have procured weaponry, surveillance equipment and defense systems from Israel, to bolster their military capabilities. Furthermore, certain nations within the ASEAN community share mutual interests in counterterrorism initiatives and intelligence exchange. Another noteworthy dimension of collaboration lies within the domain of maritime security and disaster relief, particularly humanitarian assistance, wherein a select group of ASEAN countries have fostered cooperative efforts.
Singapore, for instance, one of the largest economies in Southeast Asia, has maintained close defense relations with Israel since its independence in 1965. This relationship encompasses various defense initiatives, including collaborative training exercises, arms procurement, and technology exchange.
Thailand and Israel have forged a substantial defense cooperation, featuring the acquisition of diverse Israeli military assets such as fighter jets, drones and radar systems. Vietnam, in recent years, has strengthened its defense relations with Israel, primarily encompassing joint training exercises and the procurement of defense equipment, including drones and radar systems.
Myanmar established diplomatic relations with Israel as early as 1953. Myanmar’s (then Burma) first Prime Minister, U Nu was the first prime minister of any country to visit the Jewish state, in 1955. Myanmar has a robust arms relationship with Israel. Israeli arms companies are reported to have maintained trade with Myanmar despite an international arms embargo on the country and even after the February 2021 coup.
As noted in earlier sections, citizens of Southeast Asian nations like Philippines and Thailand work in Israel in significant numbers and have been caught in the crossfires of the latest Israel–Hamas conflict. On the other hand, several ASEAN nations, including Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei, maintain either limited or non-existent defense relations with Israel. Historically, these countries have expressed strong reservations and criticism regarding Israel’s policies towards the Palestinian issues.
Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia have not established diplomatic relations with Israel since its establishment as a modern state in 1948. These three ASEAN nations have Muslim-majority populations and have consistently expressed solidarity with the Palestinian cause. Indonesia, for instance, is the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation and general elections are also scheduled to be held in early 2024. There has been a resurgence of Islamic conservatism in Indonesia during the last two decades and escalating contestation over religious authority, which is progressively gaining prominence in mainstream narratives, including those in the political sphere.
Diverse opinions, therefore, exist within the ASEAN member states concerning the Israel–Hamas conflict. While certain member states, such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei and Laos manifest a pronounced sense of solidarity with the Palestinian cause, others such as the Philippines, Singapore, Myanmar, Cambodia and Thailand, tend to incline either towards supporting Israel or adopt a stance of neutrality like Vietnam. Notably, there has been no criticism of one ASEAN member’s stance by another, indicating tacit acceptance of each other’s positions, in line with the ASEAN Charter’s principle of non-interference.
Om Prakash Das is Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, New Delhi
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.
This article first appeared in the Comments section of the website (www.idsa.in) of Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, New Delhi on November 7, 2023