The Lantern Festival celebrated on the 15th day of the first Chinese lunar month – this year it was March 5 – traditionally ends the Chinese New Year period. It’s long been back to work and to daily life for hundreds of millions of people who had time off for China’s annual Spring Festival period, as well as others who celebrate the holiday period around the world.
For the United States and China, this Year of the Goat could well offer up a chance for these two countries to work together in addressing some of the worst of the Year of the Horse that still hangs over us in Asia, from labor issues in Myanmar to lessons learned from Seoul.
A lunar year ago, taking a page from Washington Post political columnist Chris Cillizza’s awarding U.S. President Barack Obama the dubious distinction of “Worst year in Washington,” an associate and Southeast Asia analyst, Jose B. Collazo, and I took to the digital pages of Fortune Magazine. Our challenge was to name who had the “Worst year in Asia.” The “winner” then of that least desired 2013 prize was Obama also, for what proved to be his lost year in Asia. Cancelled trips and persistent regarding the substance of a much-ballyhooed pivot to Asia were often contrasted with China’s continued rise.
When it comes to Asia though in the year of the Goat, let’s not count Obama and the United States out: possible comebacks await. Better yet, perhaps China and the United States could work together to address the worst and build on the best of the just departed Year of the Horse.
WORST YEAR IN ASIA
The Rohingya people
Stateless. Marginalized. Persecuted. These are the words used to describe the plight of Myanmar’s Muslim minority the Rohingya – a people whose very identity Myanmar’s leaders and would-be leaders including Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi decline to recognize. Sectarian riots have killed hundreds. Thousands have fled, making them easy targets for human traffickers, and at least dozens have drowned, fleeing on rickety boats to Malaysia or Indonesia. Those that stay in Myanmar face restrictions on movement, marriage, and education. While 2015 and the year of the Goat is unlikely to bring any respite as the nation’s primarily Buddhist and majority Bamar (or Burman) ethnicity electorate and all too many foreign investors, enamored by a new Burma, look the other way, we can hope that China and the United States use their influence to right terrible wrongs against all too many of the Myanmar’s ethnic minorities.
REALLY BAD YEAR
The once anonymous Asian aviation CEO
Can it get it much worse for Asia aviation CEOs? The Year of the Horse ended with the crash of a Taiwanese TransAsia flight into a river killing at least 42 people. And what of Malaysia Airlines CEO Ahmad Jauhari Yahya? In a region all too often stereotyped as the realm of crony capitalism and secretive CEOs, the Year of the Horse saw tragedy bring to Asian executives the sort of scrutiny that Western business executives have grown accustomed to in a world dominated by social media and a 24-hour news cycle. With Chinese citizens making up the vast majority of the passengers on the now missing-for-one-year MH370, what more incentive could there be for greater partnership between China, the United States and all the nations of Southeast Asia to work together to promote safety and cooperation in Asia’s increasingly crowded skies.
And then there’s Cho Hyun-ah, the one-time Korean Air vice president. Air travel has become sadly an ever-increasing challenge for all too many passengers. Just ask Cho, whose father Cho Yang-ho runs the airline, and who took it upon herself to order a plane back to gate in order to remove a steward who failed to ensure that her macadamia nuts were served to her on a plate, not in a bag. Cho’s “nutrage” and subsequent arrest and conviction for breaking aviation laws brought unwanted attention to South Korea’s conglomerates, the families who run them, and the power they wield. The incident also underscores the importance, whether in Korea, China or the United States, of the importance of good governance and accountability in all businesses. State-owned enterprises and listed companies must all follow the rules. We can hope that such a focus is also part of China’s much discussed anti-corruption efforts.
India’s Space Program
India took a dramatic move up the knowledge and value chains with its first interplanetary mission, officially called M-O-M, for Mars Orbiter Mission, launched by the Indian Space Research Organization, ISRO, in November 2013. The Mars craft or “Manglyaan” in Sanskrit, successfully entered Mars’s orbit last September 24, and made, India the world’s fourth nation to embark successfully on an interplanetary journey. In a triumph of low-cost engineering, the mission reportedly cost only US$74 million – less than the cost of the Hollywood blockbuster film Gravity. Meanwhile, China’s Chang-e moonlander and Yutu rover faded from the headlines due in part to technical difficulties with the crafts after their 2013 soft landing on the lunar surface. This competition in space could be even better if there also grew greater cooperation between China, the United States – and perhaps even India – as the world looks again to the moon and to Mars, even as tremendous poverty remains on earth.
Asia’s New Management
“Under New Management,” a sign often signaling changes to come, would be appropriate across a map of Asia as China, India, and Indonesia, home to a third of the planet’s population, changed leadership these past few years. The best year in Asia for this past lunar year goes to leaders of countries representing the vast majority of Asia’s populace. India’s Narendra Modi, and Indonesia’s Joko “Jokowi” Widodo are seen as pro-business and reform minded and whose agendas still have the potential to kick into high gear their respective countries’ economies despite recent political setbacks at the hands of rivals. They will face a tough, uphill battle to root out corruption and improve each country’s business environment, as will Xi Jinping in China and Japan’s Shinzo Abe. However if successful, they together will assure the region’s critical role in growing the global economy, and accelerate the rise of the “Asian Century.” It won’t necessarily be easy, but there is reason to hope that not just the United States and China, but also India, Indonesia and Japan can find common ground in the year ahead, as the region and the world mark the end of the Second World War.
Enter the year of the Goat. Onward and forward.
BEST/WORST – Year of the Horse
Worst year: the Rohingya people
Really bad year: Asia’s once anonymous aviation CEO
Bad year: Cho Hyun-Ah
Good year: India’s space program
Best year: Asia’s new management