It’s only when the tide goes out, as Warren Buffett famously said, that you learn who’s been swimming naked. Well, 2013 has been a banner year for skinny-dipping among Asian leaders, central banks and business people.
In Japan and South Korea, talk of epochal change from two newish leaders was shown to be empty. China’s supposedly peaceful rise was laid bare by aggressive actions. Hopes that Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh would rediscover his reformist roots proved barren. Supposedly omnipotent Dear Leader Kim Jong Un executed his uncle and No. 2 for allegedly brewing a coup. Australia’s new leader found his approval ratings to be bottomless.
As the year draws to a close, all too many would-be emperors in Asia were revealed to have all too few clothes. The most shameless top our first Naked Awards:
• Shinzo Abe: After starting the year so promisingly with a monetary tidal wave, the prime minister’s pledges to deregulate Japan veered into “Waiting for Godot” territory. All that seems left of “Abenomics” is a 52 percent jump in the Nikkei 225 Stock Average that’s looking too bubbly for comfort.
China’s Communist Party: Beijing had linguists rethinking the definition of “peaceful rise” as China upset the neighborhood with a new air-defense identification zone, confrontations at sea and promises of more. President Xi Jinping left little doubt who Asia’s strongman was in 2013 but plenty about how real his pledges of reform are.
Najib Razak: After blaming Chinese and Indian minorities for his party’s poor showing in May’s elections, the Malaysian prime minister doubled down on his ruling party’s race-based affirmative-action policies. Not surprisingly, Malaysia fell even further off the global radar screen.
The Kim dynasty: No doubt the Dear Leader meant to look decisive and fearsome by whacking his uncle Jang Song Thaek, but he came off instead as insecure and erratic. The good news for U.S. President Barack Obama is he can soon debrief Dennis Rodman to get the state of play in Pyongyang. Because, really, who knows?
Aung San Suu Kyi: After years of being called a human-rights heroine, Asia’s answer to Nelson Mandela demonstrated, awkwardly, that her causes did not include the plight of Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingyas. Buyer’s remorse for Nobel Peace Prize voters?
Thailand’s Democrat Party: Populated by Oxford-educated elites, it continues to back an overthrow of democracy. Honorable mention goes to Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who squandered 12 months Thailand couldn’t afford to waste on a failed effort to repatriate her fugitive, ex-prime minister brother Thaksin Shinawatra.
The BIITS: The hype about a developing-nation bloc encompassing Brazil, India, Indonesia, Turkey and South Africa met the stark reality of slowing growth and political paralysis. You have to wonder if being clumped into one of these acronyms is the economic equivalent of the magazine-cover curse.
Obama’s “pivot”: By forcing Obama to cancel a four-country trip to Asia and miss a summit of regional leaders because of a standoff over health care, tea partiers exposed the U.S.’ rebalancing toward Asia as lacking carrots and sticks — and clothes.
India’s misplaced outrage: Diplomat Devyani Khobragade absolutely deserved to be arrested in New York for lying to U.S. authorities about paying her housekeeper $3.31 an hour. India’s outrage and steps to remove security barriers from American compounds displayed a warped sense of justice and smacked of diplomatic immaturity.
Tokyo Electric Power Co.: Tepco admitted what everyone had been telling it for two years — that it had an uncontrolled release of radioactive water on its hands. Oh, and that it didn’t know how to stop it. Honorable mention: Prime Minister Abe, for bending the truth when he told the International Olympic Committee that Fukushima was “under control” in order to win the 2020 Games.
Bitcoin: One of the world’s greatest Ponzi schemes ran afoul of governments from China to Thailand, who tried to figure out the mechanics of a virtual currency that sounds suspiciously like a carpentry tool. A counterfeiting opportunity for North Korean hackers in the year ahead?
Tony Abbott: After running a three-year scare campaign that Australia’s Labor government had created a debt emergency, Abbott wasted no time in amassing a giant Australian $47 billion ($42 billion) budget deficit. A prime minister who declared Australia was again open for business scuttled Archer-Daniels-Midland Co.’s takeover of GrainCorp Ltd. on national-interest grounds so tenuous even he couldn’t explain them.
JPMorgan Chase & Co.: If Chief Executive Officer Jamie Dimon thinks his hands are full now, just wait until a scandal involving decisions to hire the sons and daughters of China’s ruling elite makes its way to Capitol Hill. Any story that links Wall Street’s corruption to Beijing’s is bound to generate more than its fair share of congressional hearings.
Zhou Xiaochuan: The People’s Bank of China governor failed miserably in his purge of the shadow banking system, leaving the nation’s monetary authority decidedly behind the tightening curve. As the Federal Reserve’s tapering process unfolds and the tide of excess liquidity goes out, China’s economy could feel awfully exposed in the 12 months ahead.
William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist based in Tokyo.