With the Year of the Pig upon us, we take one last look at who was up and who was down in Asia in 2018. Readers may well be surprised by the relative positions of China's and Malaysia's leaders in our annual year-end assessment. Yet from a year that began with a dazzling Winter Olympics in South Korea and ended with another devastating tsunami in Indonesia, the Year of the Dog was one of definite surprises. Get ready for what might well be an even more unsettling year ahead, in China-US relations and beyond
Worst Year: Xi Jinping - Power isn’t what it used to be
What a difference a year makes. With China’s President Xi Jinping firmly in place as China’s most powerful leader in decades, Xi took “Best Year” in Asia in 2017 along with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. This year, the news wasn’t so good for this would-be “new Mao in town” as challenges grew at home and abroad to Xi’s reign amidst a slowing Chinese economy.
The beginning of the year saw the 65-year-old leader pushing through constitutional changes that would give him the ability to serve as president for life. Xi’s philosophy was also enshrined in China’s Constitution as “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.”
But by the end of 2018, Xi’s efforts to “Make China Great Again” were increasingly uncertain as Trump’s non-traditional playbook threw up new challenges. A 90-day pause in the ongoing U.S.-China tariffs war may well end on March 1 with an increase to 25% in tariffs on some $200 billion in Chinese goods, and with the CFO and daughter of the founder of China’s most powerful tech company, Huawei, arrested in Canada for possible extradition to the U.S.
Despite Trump’s reputation for going it alone, the U.S. president also ushered in a new era of scrutiny of China’s behavior under Xi in areas as diverse as its repression of the Uighur Muslim minority, militarization of the South China Sea and accusations of debt diplomacy in its once highly touted Belt and Road Initiative.
The Year of the Pig may be a better year and this a temporary setback, but China’s most powerful man takes “Worst Year in Asia” in 2018.
Bad Year: Press Freedom - A bad situation gets worse
Telling the truth has always been an occupational hazard for journalists in much of Asia. The region as a whole has never fared well in rankings of press freedom, with China and Turkey among the top jailers of journalists.
This year saw an escalation of actions by state governments to silence journalists reporting on the realities of the region. In Myanmar, also known as Burma, Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were sentenced to seven years in prison for violating the country’s Official Secrets Acts for reporting on a massacre of Rohingya Muslims. In Cambodia, a tax evasion charge was used to shut down the Cambodia Daily, an English language daily that covered what some call the country’s “culture of impunity.” In China, award-winning photographer Lu Guang, whose images captured the inequities in that country’s development, was arrested.
The same tactic is being used in the Philippines against Maria Ressa, chief of the social news network Rappler, which has covered in often critical terms the administration of President Duterte. Ressa, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were among four individuals and a group of journalists named as Time magazine’s “person of the year” for their roles as “guardians” of the truth.
Even the once free-wheeling Hong Kong sent out a chilling message to the free press, when Financial Times news editor Victor Mallet was denied renewal of his work visa and then blocked from even visiting as a tourist after he presided over a controversial Foreign Correspondents Club of Hong Kong talk. So much for reporting the news without fear or favor.
Mixed Year: U.S.-Asia Trade - Uncertainty on both sides of the Pacific
For years, the story of global trade seemed decidedly positive, as government and business leaders in the U.S. and in Asia’s largest trading nations focused on steadily growing numbers. U.S. exports of goods to Asia totaled some $490 million in 2017, according to U.S. Department of Commerce data, and are likely to have reached similar levels in 2018.
But 2018 brought new developments and new tariffs, as Trump brought focus on those arguably made worse off by trade. The U.S. president also drew attention to outdated World Trade Organization (WTO) rules and called out protectionism. Trump made clear that trade deficits, particularly with China, mattered. Threats of tariffs between the U.S. and China as well as the U.S. and Japan, the world’s top three economies, have contributed to a climate of disruption that is reshaping the global economic and trading order we take for granted.
One sign of this volatility is the re-visiting of critical supply chains that cut across continents and deliver everything from smartphones designed in California and manufactured and assembled in Asia to the soybeans American farmers sell to China. As supply chains shift, American consumers may increasingly find “Made in China” replaced not by “Made in U.S.A.” but by “Made in Vietnam,” “Made in Thailand,” or somewhere else in a region unsettled by a “new normal” of uncertainty.
Good Year: Singapore - The Lion City struts its stuff on the global stage
For the first time, a city - make that city state - takes the honors in our rankings. But what a country the “Lion City” is. Singapore shone in the global spotlight and filled U.S. television and movie screens as never before in 2018.
First it was the summit to end all summits. In June, Singapore played host to a landmark first meeting between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. The two leaders met to discuss the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, turning down the heated rhetoric, while thousands, including some 2,500 registered media, gathered to watch and report. Then it was two key regional gatherings in November, when Singapore played host to the ASEAN Summit and the East Asian Summit, with Vice President Pence filling in for President Trump.
In between there was the blockbuster Warner Brothers film “Crazy Rich Asians.” The film didn’t just put Asian and Asian-American actors on the Hollywood screen but also dazzled viewers in the United States and around the world with the sights and sounds of Singapore to the tune of nearly $240 million at the box office since this August release.
About two-thirds the size of New York City, and home to more than 5.6 million Singaporeans, the little red dot, as the tiny island nation of Singapore is also proudly referred to, offered up to the world a prosperous, orderly vision of urbanization at its best in 2018.
Best Year: Mahathir Bin Mohamad - A comeback kid for the ages
At the ripe old age of 92, Mahathir Bin Mohamad came out of retirement to defeat his one-time protégé Prime Minister Najib Razak and once again, after 15 years, lead Malaysia - a Southeast Asian nation of some 32 million people and the region’s third richest country after Indonesia and Thailand.
Malaysians, tired of corruption scandals and rising living costs, looked to Mahathir, now the oldest state leader in the world, for a mix of continuity and change. Najib is now under indictment for allegedly stealing millions from a state investment fund known as 1MDB. That is only a small fraction, though, of an alleged $4.5 billion laundered through U.S. financial institutions and misspent by Najib, his wife and associates.
In bringing back Mahathir, Malaysia’s voters took a stand on what U.S. investigators have called “kleptocracy at its worst.” Still, the comeback kid has a few more challenges ahead of him, including reforming his country’s institutions, fixing its finances and paving the way for new leadership - difficult tasks for a man even half Mahathir’s age. Those upcoming 2019 challenges don’t take away from his 2018 story that captured the region, and so we give “Best Year in Asia” to Prime Minister Mahathir, a comeback kid for the ages.