NEW YORK – Last week, outgoing U.S. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. They honored the fallen and in the words of the White House showcased “the power of reconciliation” that turned one-time World War II foes into “the closest of allies.”
But that strong partnership including Abe’s staunch support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal were not enough to keep Obama from returning to our year-end review for CNN of Asia’s winners and losers.
In 2016, we looked further east, across the Pacific, to an outgoing U.S. president and a fading pivot and partnership. We review the year that was.
Worst Year: The U.S. pivot to Asia
The winner of the dubious distinction of worst year in Asia goes to Obama for a “U.S. pivot to Asia” that was increasingly seen as more rhetoric than reality even before November’s elections.
A central Obama foreign policy initiative, the pivot was described as a strategic rebalance, shifting U.S. diplomatic and military resources to the world’s most dynamic economic region. At its economic heart would be an ambitious trade deal, the TPP linking 12 Pacific Rim nations accounting for 40 percent of the world economy. The United States, not China, would help “write the rules,” Obama declared, through this “gold standard” of trade deals.
All that was not to be. First, one-time TPP proponent Hillary Clinton turned her back on the deal. And then, Trump’s election drove a stake into it. The president-elect has said among his first actions in office will be to withdraw the U.S. from the TPP in favor of “fair bilateral trade deals.”
Oversold, under-delivered and now trumped: The pivot to Asia.
Bad Year: South Korean President Park Geun-hye
In South Korea, it has been a bad year for the embattled Park, who was impeached over a still unfolding scandal that could well have been penned by a Hollywood screenwriter. Allegations of corruption and slush funds mix with tales of cult-like rituals and influence linked to a mysterious, close friend now on trial, Choi Soon-sil, daughter of a deceased religious figure. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets calling for the president’s resignation.
Park barely beats out another contender from South Korea for “bad year” in Asia — Samsung Electronics for its now discontinued Galaxy Note 7.
The smartphone was seen as a worthy challenger to Apple’s iPhone. Any such aspirations in 2016, literally and figuratively, went down in flames. Battery problems causing some Galaxy Note 7s to spontaneously combust put the “must have” phone on a permanent “no fly” and then “don’t buy” list.
A mixed year: Asia’s “webizens”
When their smartphones did work, increasing mobile adoption and internet penetration in 2016 gave Asia’s webizens the tools to connect and share information and opinions as never before. Unfortunately, for many in Asia, if an increase in freedom of online expression is the metric, the year was mixed at best.
The 2016 Freedom on the Net report by U.S. nongovernmental organization Freedom House rates only two of 15 Asian countries — Japan and the Philippines — as having an internet that is assessed as “free.” Webizens were “partly free” in South Korea, India, Singapore, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Cambodia and Bangladesh, and “not free” in Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, China and Pakistan.
From outright censorship or arrest in China or blocked access to social media platforms and communication apps such as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp, to the murder of bloggers in Bangladesh, for Asia’s webizens the power of technology also brought new risks in 2016.
Good year: Asia’s “digital disrupters”
Amazon’s Jeff Bezos may well be a household name in America, but how about Wei Cheng, co-founder and CEO of Didi Chuxing (formerly Didi Kuai), the multibillion dollar Chinese ride-sharing app that beat Uber Technologies at its own game in China. In September, Uber surrendered in its costly battle for riders in China and swapped its operations there for a minority stake in Didi Chuxing.
Cheng is an example of Asia’s digital disrupters who came into their own in 2016. Like Jack Ma of Alibaba Group, these new titans are embracing disruptive business models and leveraging local knowledge and connections to win customers and investments. For them, 2016 was most definitely a good year, even if some are still struggling, as are their Silicon Valley role models, to turn a profit.
Alibaba affiliate Ant Financial, the parent company of the Alipay online payment service, was valued alone at about $60 billion in June when it raised $4.5 billion. Paytm CEO Vijay Shekhar Sharma of India is one more digital disrupter. His and others’ e-commerce and digital wallet offerings are likely to benefit from India Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s efforts to “demonetize” and “digitalize India.”
With Forrester research projecting the Asia-Pacific e-commerce market to reach $1.4 trillion in 2020, these and other digital disrupters are likely to see many more good years ahead.
Best Year: Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte
Not without controversy, Duterte tops our CNN list for “best year” in Asia by winning his nation’s presidency in a landslide last May and subsequently upending, rethinking and reshaping the state of affairs — for good or for bad — at home and abroad.
Since taking office on June 30, the former mayor of Davao City has launched an unsparing, and bloody, war on crime and drugs that has brought mounting human rights criticism and concerns over extrajudicial killings.
The tough-talking leader also has declared a “separation” from the U.S., its long-term ally, and moved to put aside territorial disputes in favor of business deals with China — this, despite an international tribunal ruling in the Philippines’ favor in July over territories in the South China Sea.
In early December, the Social Weather Stations survey firm had Duterte enjoying a 77 percent approval rating as Filipinos continue to put their trust in their controversial president. For now, the Philippine leader’s unconventional moves seem a harbinger of things to come.
This is no pivot to China, but a disruption of the old normal. Duterte ended 2016 seeking to rebalance his nation’s ties, improve the life of the average Filipino and make the Philippines — a one-time economic and trade powerhouse — great again. And for that, Asia’s best year goes to Duterte.
Curtis S. Chin, a former U.S. ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC. Jose B. Collazo is a Southeast Asia analyst and an associate at RiverPeak Group. Follow Curtis on Twitter at @CurtisSChin and Jose at @JoseBCollazo.