Asia’s ‘best’ and ‘worst’ of 2017

The Rohingya refugee camp in the Bangladeshi district of Ukhia. The Rohingya and Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi had the worst 2017. Munir Uz Zaman/AFP
The Rohingya refugee camp in the Bangladeshi district of Ukhia. The Rohingya and Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi had the worst 2017. Munir Uz Zaman/AFP

By Curtis S Chin and Jose B Collazo

As 2018 begins in Cambodia and around the world, we take a last look at what made headlines and, fitting in this day, 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 US presidential visit, the images were all-too-real.

This past year’s 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, worst year went to the “US pivot to Asia” as presidential candidates from Hillary Clinton to an ultimately victorious Donald Trump made clear that 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 & the Rohingya people – a falling star & a failing response
In 2013, Myanmar’s then-opposition leader and democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi’s fall from grace began. The Nobel Peace 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 year’s end 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 UN 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 – sadly, the joint “winners” of worst year in Asia 2017.

Bad Year: The opposition – fading fast
Across Asia 2017, it 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. An unfolding scandal the year before helped bring in Moon Jae-in to the South Korean presidency this past May, but for the most part, 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 Mayor Yuriko Koike. Incumbency does have its advantages.

A Mixed Year at Best: Asean – an unfolding mid-life crisis
Two thousand seventeen proved both good and bad for the 10-member Association of Southeast Asia Nations, whose 50th anniversary celebrations this past November in Manila included a visit by US President Trump and a seemingly budding bromance between the US 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 economy by 2050. That’s the good news.

But 2017 also made clear that the association’s non-confrontational, consensus-building approach, deemed the “Asean Way”, may well be facing a mid-life 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 buzz-word for the financial technology that is challenging and reshaping mainstream banking and finance companies – as ecommerce 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 Jong-un – 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, 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.

The year also saw progress on two landmark Xi initiatives – the “One Belt, One Road” or “new Silk 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 Jinping was the behaviour of the man dubbed “Little Rocket Man” by Trump – North Korea’s President Kim Jong-un. 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 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 Jinping emerge as a voice for Chinese-style globalisation and Kim Jong Un 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, frenemies 2017.

Curtis S Chin, a former US 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: @CurtisSChin and Jose: @JoseBCollazo.