Crystal-ball gazing is a notoriously inexact science, so before getting to that, let’s lessen the potential exposure to ridicule by starting with a roundup of the last 12 months’ key trends and events in Asia.
1) Tacloban — In November, huge Typhoon Haiyan flattened this seaside town on the island of Leyte in the Philippines, claiming more than 6,100 lives. The human misery continues as a poverty-stricken area struggles to recover. It’s a reminder of how vulnerable much of Asia remains to frequent natural disasters.
2) Xi Jinping — China has a new president, but early signs are negative. Hu Jintao, his predecessor, initially seemed like a reformer, but his era is mostly known for missed opportunities. He bequeathed a legacy of endemic corruption, political repression, widening disparities and slowing growth.
Xi wowed many foreign analysts with a nod to market forces, but can he meet rising expectations? He has tightened the state’s iron grip, is finding nationalism a useful distraction and has abandoned the smile diplomacy that once reassured the region that China’s rise doesn’t represent a threat. He has taken down high-profile enemies and has centralized powers — but can Xi-curity manage growing discontent at home and in the region?
3) Senkaku/Diaoyu — These disputed rocks in the East China Sea have triggered escalating tensions and a test of wills between Tokyo and Beijing. The tit-for-tat diplomacy and saber-rattling raise concerns about a dangerous miscalculation. Are East Asia’s leaders repeating Europe’s mistakes of a century ago, sleepwalking to war?
4) “Abenomics” — Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s three arrows of economic policy, being quantitative easing on steroids, massive fiscal pump-priming and structural reforms, took the world, and the Nikkei stock index, by storm in 2013. But there is growing skepticism about whether Abenomics is sustainable, because he has not delivered on structural reforms.
5) Yasukuni Award — The winner is Abe, who visited Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo on Boxing Day, inflaming tensions with China and South Korea and drawing a swift and sharp rebuke from the United States.
This is the real Abe, an ultraconservative prone to irresponsible gestures that recklessly endanger national interests.
Business leaders aren’t the only ones worried about where Abe is taking the nation. His frog-marching of new secrecy legislation through the Diet owes much to a blustering Beijing, and so this new provocation seems designed to incite China and thus facilitate his agenda of reinventing Japan as a “normal nation.” This, to him, means relaxing constitutional constraints on Japan’s military and lifting the ban on arms exports.
6) Fukushima Award — Abe and Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco), operators of the stricken Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, share this honor.
Despite Abe’s reassurances, the problems persist, and now the government has declared that many nuclear refugees will never be able to return to their ancestral homes. The cleanup and decommissioning will take longer and cost more than planned. Meanwhile, hapless Tepco is seeking approval to restart its nuclear plant in Niigata Prefecture and is preparing to dump its toxic assets into a new entity.
7) Indians’ dream — Voters in Asia’s most populous democracy administered an epic drubbing to the ruling Congress Party in the New Delhi region, catapulting the new and untested Aam Aadmi (Common Man’s) Party into power. This was a vote against the corrupt and feckless Congress and a repudiation of mainstream parties on the eve of national elections.
8) Bangladesh sweatshops — The death of more than 1,000 factory workers when the Rana Plaza in Dhaka collapsed last April confronted consumers with the seamy realities of the garment industry. Inadequate compensation and little progress on enacting stricter factory regulations by retailers operating there underscore the limits of corporate social responsibility.
9) Myanmar unrest — Communal tensions targeting Muslim communities erupted in western and central regions, raising questions about the ongoing democratic transition from military rule.
Tensions simmer, but new outbreaks of violence have been averted. Democracy icon Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has drawn sharp international criticism for not doing more to ease tensions and help victims.
10) Stalin redux — Purges are so passé, but the show trial of Bo Xilai in China and Kim Jong Un’s execution of his uncle must have Stalin beaming.
And so now to the really tricky business of predicting what lies in store in Asia over the coming year.
1) Impasse in East Asia — Expectations that frosty relations were due for a thaw in 2014 were dashed when Abe dropped his Boxing Day Yasukuni-size slab of ice on such hopes. He says his door is always open for dialogue with Beijing and Seoul, but his genuflection at the altar of wartime imperialism amounts to slamming it in their faces.
2) Sochi Olympics — Pussy Riot will not sing at the opening ceremony; Mao Asada won’t win gold; and no gays will be arrested during the games.
3) Abe will seal agreements that will enable Japan to supply nuclear technology and components to India and finalize the sale of US-2 military amphibious air-sea-rescue aircraft produced by ShinMaywa.
4) The Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party will oust Congress from power in India.
The BJP, under Narendra Modi will regain national power in a coalition government before May 2014. Modi cultivates a probusiness image, but remains a deeply polarizing figure. He has managed to shrug off allegations of complicity in the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat state that claimed more than a 1,000 lives shortly after he was elected its chief minister.
5) China faces heightened domestic discon-tent due to further revelations about Communist Party corruption, growing disparities in wealth and income, and a slowing economy unable to generate enough good jobs to meet youth’s expectations. There are good reasons why China spends more on internal security than defense.
6) Thailand’s ongoing crisis instigated by antigovernment demonstrators will intensify. New elections, if conducted, will not resolve the impasse and could spark spiraling violence and a military coup.
7) Indonesians will vote for reform and elect Jakarta Gov. Joko Widodo as president of Asia’s second-largest democracy. He has been a successful populist, but can he take on vested interests, overcome a dysfunctional system and meet high expectations?
8) Japan will restart some nuclear reactors despite public opinion and safety concerns — testimony to the resilience of the nuclear village. The public backlash will be strong, and will arouse anti-Abe sentiments among the many who oppose his agenda of relaxing constitutional constraints on the military and promoting a vindicating view of Japan’s wartime conduct — all while rolling back transparency and accountability.
9) Tohoku on hold — On the third anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake, there will be more handwringing and rousing rhetoric about rebuilding Tohoku. However, little there will change as focus and resources shift to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
10) National broadcaster NHK’s news coverage will be more favorable to Abe since he stacked the board, but his popularity will drop anyway.
11) Okinawans will not celebrate Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima’s agreement with the central government, and the U.S. military bases will remain contentious despite the $3 billion annual payoff.
12) Shoko Asahara, leader of Aum Shinrikyo, will be executed for 1995′s sarin-gas attacks on the Tokyo subway system. The trial of his lieutenant, Makoto Hirata, will end with a death sentence.
Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.