But 2018 was also a year of highs, from a dazzling Winter Olympics in South Korea to the rescue of a youth football team trapped in a water-filled Thai cave to new world focus on Southeast Asia.
As 2019 gets underway and the Year of the Pig approaches, uncertainty also continues. A pause continues in North Korean missile tests, and for now, in escalating US China tensions as US President Donald Trump seeks to reshape economic ties and call-out unfair Chinese business practices. The phrase “Asia-Pacific” also was most definitely out – perhaps too vaguely reminiscent of the faded Obama Administration “pivot to Asia” – and replaced by “Indo-Pacific,” as President Trump brought his disruptive style of diplomacy to the world’s largest continent, Asia, in 2018.
So who was up and who was down in Asia in 2018? Here’s our annual assessment of the winners and losers in Asia, in the year that was:
Worst Year: Xi Jinping – Power isn’t what it used to be
What a difference a year makes. With China’s President Xi Jinping firmly in place as China’s most powerful leader in decades, Xi took “Best Year” in Asia in 2017 along with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. This year the news wasn’t so good for this would-be “new Mao in town” as challenges grew at home and abroad to Xi’s reign amidst a slowing, but still growing, Chinese economy.
The beginning of the year saw the 65-year-old leader pushing through constitutional challenges that would give him the ability to serve as president for life. Xi’s own philosophy also was enshrined in China’s Constitution – “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”.
But at year’s end, Xi’s efforts to “Make China Great Again” were increasingly uncertain, as Trump’s non-traditional playbook threw up new challenges. A 90-day pause in the ongoing US-China tariffs war may well end on March 1 with an increase to 25% in tariffs on some $200 billion in Chinese goods, and the CFO and daughter of the founder of China’s most powerful tech company, Huawei, has been arrested in Canada for possible extradition to the US.
Despite Trump’s reputation for going it alone, the US president also has helped usher in a new era of scrutiny of China’s behaviour under Xi in areas as diverse as its repression of the Uighur Muslim minority, militarisation of the South China Sea and accusations of debt diplomacy in its once highly touted Belt and Road Initiative.
2019 may well be another and better year and this a temporary setback, but China’s most powerful man takes “Worst Year in Asia” in 2018.
Bad Year: Press Freedom – A bad situation gets worse
Telling the truth has always been an occupational hazard for journalists in much of Asia. The region as a whole has never fared well in rankings of press freedom, with China and Turkey routinely among the top jailers of journalists.
Unfortunately, this year saw an escalation of actions by state governments to silence journalists reporting on the realities of the region. In Myanmar, also known as Burma, Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were sentenced to seven years in prison for violating the country’s Official Secrets Acts for reporting on a massacre of Rohingya Muslims. In Cambodia, a tax evasion charge was used to shut down the Cambodia Daily, an English language daily that covered what some call the country’s “culture of impunity.”
The same tactic is being used in the Philippines against Maria Ressa, chief of the social news network Rappler, which has relentlessly covered in often critical terms the administration of President Duterte. Ressa, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were among four individuals and a group of journalists named as Time magazine’s “person of the year” for their roles as “guardians” of the truth. In Bangladesh, photojournalist Shahidul Alam was jailed for criticising the country’s prime minister, and China has arrested award-winning Chinese photographer Lu Guang, whose photos document the inequities in China’s development.
These incidents don’t even touch on the self-censorship that reporters in Asia may well practice to get even the basic news out to the public. Even once free-wheeling Hong Kong sent out a chilling message to the free press when Financial Times news editor Victor Mallet was denied renewal of his work visa and then blocked from even visiting as a tourist after he presided over a controversial Foreign Correspondents Club of Hong Kong talk. So much for reporting the news without fear or favour.
Mixed Year: US-Asia Trade – Uncertainty on both sides of the Pacific
For years, the story of global trade seemed decidedly and uniformly positive as government and business leaders in the U.S. and in Asia’s largest trading nations focused on steadily growing numbers. US exports of goods to Asia totalled some $490 billion in 2017, according to US Department of Commerce data, and are likely to reach similar levels in 2018.
The US also remains a powerhouse when it comes to services exports. That includes banking, insurance and technology services.
But 2018 brought new interpretations, and new tariffs, as Trump brought new focus on those arguably made worse off by trade. The US president also drew attention to outdated World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules and called out protectionism. Trump made clear that still growing trade deficits, particularly with China, mattered. Threats of tariffs between the U.S. and China as well as the US and Japan, the world’s top three economies, have contributed to a climate of disruption that is reshaping the global economic and trading order we take for granted.
One sign of this volatility is the re-visiting of critical supply chains that cut across continents and deliver everything from smartphones designed in California and manufactured and assembled in Asia to the soybeans American farmers have long sold to China. As supply chains shift, however, consumers in America and elsewhere may well increasingly find “made in China” replaced not by “made in USA” but by “made in Vietnam”, “made in Thailand”, or somewhere else in a region unsettled by a “new normal” of uncertainty.
Good Year: Singapore – The Lion City struts its stuff on the global stage
For the first time, a city – make that city-state – takes the honours in our rankings. But what a country the “Lion City” is. Singapore shined in the global spotlight and filled US television and movie screens as never before in 2018.
First it was the summit to end all summits. In June, Singapore played host to a landmark first meeting between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. The two leaders met to discuss the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, tuning down for now the rhetoric and seeming march to confrontation, and thousands gathered to watch and report, including some 2500 registered media. Then it was two key regional gatherings in November, when Singapore played host to the ASEAN Summit and the East Asian Summit, with Vice President Pence filling in for President Trump.
In between there was the blockbuster Warner Brothers film “Crazy Rich Asians”. The film didn’t just put Asian and Asian-American actors on the Hollywood screen but also dazzled viewers in the United States and around the world with the sights and sounds of Singapore to the tune of nearly $240 million at the box office since its August release.
About two-thirds the size of New York City and home to more than 5.6 million Singaporeans, the little red dot, as the tiny island nation of Singapore is also proudly referred to, offered up to the world a prosperous, orderly vision of urbanisation at its best in 2018.
Best Year: Mahathir Mohamad – A comeback kid for the ages
Aged 73 at the time of his re-election, Ronald Reagan is the oldest person elected as US president but he has nothing on Malaysia’s new leader. At the ripe old age of 92, Mahathir Mohamad came out of retirement to defeat his one-time protege Prime Minister Najib Razak and once again, after 15 years, lead Malaysia – a Southeast Asian nation of some 32 million people that is also the region’s third richest, after Indonesia and Thailand.
In a win for democracy, Malaysians, tired of corruption scandals and rising living costs, looked to Mahathir, now the oldest state leader in the world, for a mix of continuity and change. Najib is now under indictment for allegedly stealing millions from state investment fund 1MDB. That, though, is only a small fraction of an alleged $4.5 billion laundered through US financial institutions and misspent by Najib, his wife and associates.
Malaysia might not come up that often on most American’s screens. But that too might well change as the film rights to a book, “Billion Dollar Whale: The Man Who Fooled Wall Street, Hollywood, and the World”, detailing the 1MDB scandal have been bought by SK Global, the production company behind the film “Crazy Rich Asians”.
In bringing back Mahathir, Malaysia’s voters took a stand on what US investigators have called “kleptocracy at its worst”. Still, the comeback kid has a few more challenges ahead of him, including reforming his country’s institutions, fixing its finances and paving the way for new leadership – difficult tasks for a man even half Mahathir’s age. There’s no taking away though from a story that captured the region, and so we give “Best Year in Asia” to now Prime Minister Mahathir, a comeback kid for the ages.
China and India may well capture the headlines and imaginations, but whether giant Indonesia – the fourth largest nation by population in the world – or tiny Timor-Leste – Asia’s newest nation – businesses and consumers may well find the nations of Southeast Asia increasingly on their radar in the years ahead. And that’s a good thing as disruption continues to come to Asia in an increasingly interconnected world.
Curtis S Chin, a former US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group. Follow him on Twitter: @CurtisSChin. Jose B Collazo is a Southeast Asia analyst and associate at RiverPeak Group. Follow him on Twitter: @JoseBCollazo.