Asia’s best and worst in 2017As 2018 begins, we take a last look at what made headlines and lit up Facebook and Twitter in Asia in 2017. From the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s half-brother at a Malaysian airport to smog-filled Indian skies and a year-end U.S. 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.
Worst year: Aung San Suu Kyi and the Rohingya — a falling star and a failing response
By year’s end 2017, Myanmar’s then-opposition leader and democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi’s fall from grace may well be complete, with more than 600,000 Rohingya having now fled into Bangladesh following widespread rape, murder 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, next year 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
This was not to be a year of an “Asian 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 in Korea helped send Moon Jae-in to the Blue House this past May, but for the most part, opposition parties had it bad this year.
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 that the reign of Hun Sen as the world’s longest-serving prime minister continues for some time.
A mixed year at best: Asean — an unfolding midlife crisis
2017 proved both good and bad for the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, whose 50th anniversary celebration this November in Manila included a visit by U.S. President Trump and a potential bromance between the U.S. and Filipino presidents.
The Southeast Asia 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 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 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 one, 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” in the party’s constitution.
2017 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 behavior 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 globalization 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 U.S. ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group. Jose B. Collazo is a Southeast Asia analyst and an associate at RiverPeak Group. Follow Chin on Twitter @CurtisSChin and Collazo @JoseBCollazo.
Curtis S. Chin, Jose B. Collazo