Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on June 15 called for global efforts to achieve “fair and lasting peace” in Ukraine, as one of the few Asian leaders in attendance at the peace summit in Switzerland.

Despite Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s plea for their leaders’ personal participation, most Asian countries were represented at the international gathering in Buergenstock not by their head of state or head of government, but by ministers, officials and other representatives. Mr Kishida and Timor-Leste Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao were the exceptions.

“Many in Asia see the conflict in Ukraine as far away and not of key concern to them, despite the fact that Russian aggression towards Ukraine affects grain supply and fossil fuel prices,” said Associate Professor Chong Ja Ian from the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) political science department.

Dr Ian Storey, a senior fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, said Russia’s absence might also explain why Asian heads of states chose not to attend the summit.

“Some states who oppose Russia’s invasion may not send their head of state or government in view of the fact that the summit is unlikely to achieve a major breakthrough, especially given that Russia will not attend,” he said.

Poor attendance from Asia underscores the challenge Mr Zelensky faces in garnering global support for his country in a war that has now dragged on for more than two years, and is often described as an existential crisis for Europe.

In his speech, Mr Kishida emphasised how important global participation at the summit was.

“Realising fair and lasting peace in Ukraine would be symbolic and important in order to steer the world to harmony, not to division or confrontation” he said.

“Based on a sense of crisis that what is happening in Ukraine might occur in East Asia tomorrow, Japan has imposed strict sanctions on Russia and provided strong support for Ukraine,” he added.

Of the 92 countries taking part in the summit, the majority of them – 57 – are represented by their head of state or head of government. Only eight countries from Asia sent delegates.

In the lead-up to the summit, Mr Zelensky had come to Asia on a diplomatic charm offensive to get more countries in the region to attend the conference. This included an in-person stop at the region’s premier defence summit, the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, in early June.

“We want Asia to know what is going on in Ukraine. We want Asia to support the end of the war, and Asian leaders to attend the peace summit,” Mr Zelensky had said at the dialogue.

Singapore was represented at the Swiss peace summit by Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and National Development Sim Ann.

Other South-east Asian countries in attendance included Thailand and the Philippines, which were represented by Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs Russ Jalichandra and presidential adviser Carlito Galvez Jr, respectively.

Indonesia sent its ambassador to Switzerland I Gede Ngurah Swajaya, while India sent Mr Pavan Kapoor, a senior diplomat from its Ministry of External Affairs.

China was noticeably absent, having said weeks earlier that it would participate only in a peace summit recognised by both Russia and Ukraine. Its absence was seen by observers to be evidence of its pro-Russia tilt, despite its professed neutrality in the conflict.

Mr Zelensky has alleged that Russia had been using Chinese influence and diplomats to pressure countries in this region against participating in the peace summit.

Senate president and former long-time prime minister Hun Sen, however, was keen to stress that Cambodia’s decision to stay away was in no way influenced by China.

“Whether other countries join or not is their right to decide. Please do not try to blame China when Cambodia does not participate in the peace summit, and please stop linking Cambodia to geopolitical games against China,” he wrote in a June 7 Facebook post.

Other absentees from South-east Asia included Vietnam, Laos and Malaysia.

Professor Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political science and international relations expert at Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University, said Malaysia’s no-show may be a signal that it considers Gaza and Myanmar as more critical crises.

“Malaysia, as Asean chair next year, seems to take its own principled stand with a value-based agenda on Gaza and Myanmar,” he said.

Ukraine is in a highly precarious position, facing down a much larger neighbour with more arms and men in a brutal war of attrition. The peace conference was thus said to be an important event for Ukraine to signal that it still has considerable political and diplomatic support.

“Zelensky is trying to muster as much support as he can for his country, whether in terms of pushing for an end to the conflict or rebuilding his country after the war,” said NUS’ Prof Chong, adding that any turnout from Asia was thus a plus for both Ukraine and Mr Zelensky on that front.

Prof Chong said that while countries like Singapore and the Philippines have expressed support for Ukraine, their representation at the peace conference by ministerial-level delegates was likely commensurate with their interest, given that they might view developments in Europe as beyond their ability or desire to influence directly.

“At most, the current governments of these states may be looking to shore up existing international rules and institutions while looking to see if there are opportunities to take part in the post-conflict reconstruction in Ukraine, whenever that happens,” he added.

Asia News Network (ANN)/The Straitstimes (Singapore)