Commentary / World

The best and worst of Asia in 2017

by Curtis S. Chin and Jose B. Collazo

Contributing Writers

As 2018 and the Year of the Dog arrive, we look back at what made headlines and, fitting in this age, lit up Facebook and Twitter in Asia in 2017. From the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s half-brother at a Malaysia airport to smog-filled Indian skies and a year-end U.S. presidential visit, the images were all too real.

Our 2017 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.

In 2016, the Year of the Monkey, worst year went to the “U.S. pivot to Asia” as U.S. presidential candidates from Hillary Clinton to an ultimately victorious Donald Trump made clear that U.S. President Barack Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal would not stand. Best year went to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte for disrupting the state of affairs — for good and for bad — at home and abroad.

In 2017, who was up and who was down? We review the year that was.

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 Prize 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.

By the end of 2017, her fall may well be complete, with more than 600,000 Rohingya having now fled into Bangladesh following rapes, murders and the burning of their villages. Whether a “humanitarian and human rights nightmare,” as described by the U.N. 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 people — who are, sadly, the joint “winners” of worst year in Asia 2017.

Bad year: the opposition fading fast

Across Asia, 2017 was not to be a year of an “Asia Spring” as incumbent leaders and parties in South, Southeast and East Asia solidified their lock on power, from India to Japan. Opposition parties had it bad in the year that was.

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

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

A mixed year at best: ASEAN — an unfolding midlife crisis

This year proved both good and bad for the 10-member Association of Southeast Asia Nations, whose 50th anniversary celebrations last month in Manila included a visit by U.S. President Donald Trump and a seemingly budding bromance between the American and Filipino presidents.

The Southeast Asian region, with a combined GDP of $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 nonconfrontational, consensus-building approach, deemed the “ASEAN Way,” may well be facing a midlife crisis as the region’s embrace of Chinese investment continues. As ASEAN has celebrated, some of the region’s most pressing problems, including the Rohingya crisis and territorial disputes in the South China Sea, have 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 consulting firm 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 percent 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 and Kim — 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, President 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.

This year also saw progress on two landmark Xi initiatives — the “One Belt, One Road” development program 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 was the behavior of the man dubbed “Little Rocket Man” by Trump. With China the primary ally and trading partner of North Korea, Kim’s continued survival may well rest on China’s support more so than his expanding nuclear arsenal. Kim is likely to know that an erratic North Korea is the price that China accepts 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 globalization 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, and “best frenemies 2017.”

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