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Asia’s ‘best’ to ‘worst’ in 2017

Jan 02. 2018
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By Curtis S Chin, Jose B Collazo
Special to The Nation

Strongmen reigned supreme as democracy took a hit, while the region’s rights beacon doused her own flame in the darkness engulfing Myanmar 

From the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s half-brother at a Malaysian airport, to smog-filled Indian skies and a year-end US presidential visit, the top images of 2017 were vivid and significant. 

As 2018 begins, we take a last look at what made headlines and lit up Facebook and Twitter in Asia in 2017. 

Our selection draws from the concept of yin and yang – the Chinese philosophy of seemingly opposite but interdependent forces – as we upend tradition and name joint “winners” of Asia’s bad to good.

Worst Year: Aung San Suu Kyi and the Rohingya people – a falling star and a failing response:

In 2013, Myanmar’s then opposition leader and democracy icon Suu Kyi’s fall from grace began. The Nobel Peace Laureate did little to speak up against the persecution of the Muslim Rohingya minority as she kept her eyes on the prize of leading her majority Buddhist nation.

As 2018 gets under way, her fall may well be complete, with more than 650,000 Rohingya having now fled into Bangladesh after suffering rapes, murders and the burning of their villages. Whether a “humanitarian and human rights nightmare”, as described by the UN Secretary General, or a clear case of “ethnic cleansing,” the world has failed to effectively respond to Myanmar’s brutal treatment of an entire people.

Unfortunately, the year ahead doesn’t yet look any better for Suu Kyi or the Rohingya – sadly, the joint “winners” of worst year in Asia 2017.

Bad Year: The opposition – fading fast:

The “Asian Spring” was nipped in the bud as leaders and parties solidified their lock on power, from India to Japan. An unfolding scandal in 2016 helped send Moon Jae-in to the Blue House last May, but for the most part, opposition parties had it bad in 2017.

One-party rule continued in China with renewed vengeance, as in Vietnam and Laos. And in Cambodia, the dissolution this November of the only credible opposition party should help ensure Hun Sen’s reign as the world’s longest serving prime minister continues for some time.

Elsewhere, Thailand’s return to democracy remains on hold three years after the May 2014 coup. And in Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s party scored impressive election results, swamping the nascent party of popular Tokyo mayor Yuriko Koike. Incumbency does have its advantages.

A mixed year at Best: Asean – an unfolding midlife crisis

The past 12 months proved both good and bad for the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, whose 50th anniversary celebrations this November in Manila included a visit by US President Trump and a seemingly budding bromance with his Filipino counterpart.

Southeast Asia’s bloc, with a combined GDP of US$2.4 trillion, is now the seventh-largest economy in the world and on track to become the fourth-largest by 2050. That’s the good news.

But, 2017 also made clear that the association’s non-confrontational, consensus-building approach, dubbed the “Asean Way”, could be facing a mid-life crisis as the region’s embrace of Chinese investment continues. As Asean celebrated, some of the region’s most pressing problems, including the Rohingya crisis and territorial disputes in the South China Sea, continued to fester if not grow. 

Good Year: Asia’s fintech pioneers – bringing digital disruption to finance

Not everyone can be a Jack Ma, the storied Chinese billionaire and co-founder of Alibaba Group, nor can every company be an Ant Financial Services Group, the Alibaba-affiliated payments company described by the Economist as “the world’s most valuable fintech firm”. 

But 2017 proved to be a good year for Asia’s pioneers in fintech – a catch-all buzzword for the financial technology that is challenging and reshaping mainstream banking and finance companies – as e-commerce went increasingly mainstream, attracting both consumers and investors.

In third quarter 2017 alone, according to auditors KPMG, Asia was the global leader in fintech investment, outpacing Europe and the Americas, with more than $1.21 billion raised. The majority of that investment went to China, including $220 million to Chinese peer-to-peer lender Dianrong.

And with companies like Alibaba, JD Finance, Tencent and others looking to serve the region’s “unbanked” – only 27 per cent of Southeast Asia’s 600 million people have a bank account – what was a good year for fintech is likely to only get better. 

Best Year: Xi Jinping & Kim Jong-un – best frenemies 

“Best Year” in Asia goes to the leaders of the most populous nation, China, and arguably the region’s most frightening, North Korea. In China, Xi Jinping solidified his rule as his nation’s most powerful leader in decades as this year’s Communist Party congress elevated the one-time Fujian governor to the same level of Mao Zedong, and enshrined “Xi Jinping thought” into the party’s constitution. 

We also saw progress on two landmark Xi initiatives – the “Belt and Road” development programme to better link Chinese investment and products to key markets, and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a Chinese-led rival to the World Bank and Asian Development Bank.

The only uncertainty in 2017 for Xi Jinping was the behaviour of the leader dubbed “Little Rocket Man” by Trump – North Korea’s President Kim Jong-un. With China the primary ally and trading partner of North Korea, Kim’s continued survival may well rest on China’s support more than his nuclear arsenal. Kim is likely to know that an erratic North Korea is the price that China will accept for fear of a united, democratic Korea on its borders. 

And so, in a year that saw Xi emerge as a voice for Chinese-style globalisation and Kim survive, if not thrive, as a nuclear-armed provocateur, we give “Best Year in Asia” to a less-than-dynamic duo linked on the world stage: Xi and Kim, frenemies 2017.

Curtis S Chin, a former US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group. Jose B Collazo is a SE Asia analyst and an associate at RiverPeak. Twitter: @CurtisSChin and Jose: @JoseBCollazo.

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