Asia's century, China's year

Asia's century, China's year

World's biggest economy flexes its muscle on many fronts as others try to keep up.

Way back when 1999 was winding down, pundits were telling us that the Asian Century was about to dawn. That prediction has not yet been fully realised, but few would disagree that 2019 belonged to China. Over the past 12 months, the top headlines have been about the bruising trade war with America, defiant protests in Hong Kong against Beijing's tightening grip, and the rise of a surveillance state that is herding hundreds of thousands into "re-education" camps on its western fringes. Below, the Asia Focus team looks back on a busy and sometimes troubling 2019.


Protests in Hong Kong are now in their seventh month, albeit in a relative lull compared with the scale and intensity of earlier confrontations. Police have arrested more than 6,000 people. Many residents are angry at what they see as the erosion of the freedoms Beijing promised when the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997. China denies interfering, says it is committed to the "one country, two systems" formula and has blamed "foreign" forces for fomenting unrest. Many Hong Kong people are also demanding an independent investigation into police brutality. Police deny using excessive force. Other demands include the release of all arrested demonstrators and full democracy. The Beijing and Hong Kong governments have made clear that any call for independence will never be tolerated. With no end to strife in sight, the Hong Kong economy is now in its first recession since 2009.

India in November pulled out of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) negotiations, dimming hopes of the other 15 countries for a mammoth free-trade agreement accounting for about 40% of world trade. The announcement at the East Asian summit was at odds with the "Look East" policy Prime Minister Narendra Modi has touted since he was first elected in 2014. But India has a US$105-billion trade deficit with the other RCEP countries, including a $54-billion gap with China. It has been reluctant to lower its trade barriers for fear of being swamped by Chinese goods. The RCEP talks, which started in 2012 and were supposed to have concluded in 2015, will now lumber on into 2020.


The trial on treason charges of opposition leader Kem Sokha will begin on Jan 15, more than two years after he was arrested, a court said in December. The former president of the dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) was arrested in September 2017 and charged with treason for having links to a US-based democracy promotion organisation. Politics heated up in November when exiled Sam Rainsy, a co-founder of the CNRP, launched a well-publicised but ultimately abortive attempt to return home to lead a non-violent mass movement to oust Prime Minister Hun Sen, whose party controls every single seat in parliament. The last general election in 2018 drew condemnation from human rights groups and Western nations, which said the polls were neither free nor fair. Hun Sen has been in power for 34 years and has vowed to serve two more five-year terms.


Forest fires have cost Southeast Asia's biggest economy some US$5.2 billion, the World Bank said, not including the health impacts from toxic haze that sent air quality plummeting. The fires are an annual problem but this year was the worst since 2015 due to dry weather, with 942,000 hectares of land, mostly on Sumatra and Borneo, razed by the out-of-control blazes. Most of the fires are part of slash-and-burn efforts to clear agricultural land, including on palm oil and pulp plantations. A dozen airports and hundreds of schools closed temporarily, while more than 900,000 people reported respiratory illnesses, the World Bank said. The fires were estimated to have produced almost double the emissions caused by blazes in the Brazilian Amazon this year.

President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo pledged to be the leader of all Indonesians, after winning the April 17 election amid unsuccessful challenges from his rival Prabowo Subianto, whom he also defeated four years previously.


The Mekong River Commission said river levels in September were at their lowest in at least 60 years, and forecast severe to extreme drought in the four lower Mekong River Basin countries of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. A decline in sediment might result in greater erosion of the river's banks and bed, it added. The Xayaburi hydroelectric dam in Laos, which began operating in October, is being blamed for contributing to both problems, though rainfall has also been sparse. Critics say that the dam blocks much sediment from moving farther downstream.


Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said earlier this month that he would step down only after sorting out the mess he inherited from his predecessor, raising questions about a handover in power that is expected to take place before mid-2020. The 94-year-old leader has previously said he would hand over power to former rival Anwar Ibrahim once the country is on good footing. But Anwar, whose career was derailed earlier by a jail term for sex offences he has always denied, is facing new sex charges, and once more he says they are political.

Former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak swore an oath in a mosque earlier denying a new accusation that he ordered the killing of a Mongolian woman 13 years ago. One of Najib's former bodyguards, who is on death row for the murder, has sought a retrial and made a sworn statement alleging that Najib gave him an order to "shoot to kill" the woman because she was a foreign spy. Najib, who is already on trial on corruption charges linked to the multimillion-dollar looting of the state investment fund 1MDB, says the tale was concocted by the current government to discredit him.


State Counsellor leader Aung San Suu Kyi led her country's team to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to rebut allegations of genocide against the Rohingya Muslim minority. On her return to Myanmar, the Nobel laureate accused The Gambia, which brought the case to the ICJ, of ignoring key facts about the conflict in Rakhine state. They include a history of conflict and fighting between the military and the separatist, insurgent Arakan Army, whose members are Buddhists.


The 30th SEA Games came to an end earlier this month with the host nation Philippines the runaway winner of 149 gold medals. After a chaotic start beset by organisational gaffes, a presidential apology and online mockery, the Games were briefly hit by a deadly typhoon, but organisers worked around the clock to get the schedule back on track.

Philippine journalist Maria Ressa said she would not be silenced as she launched her defence against a libel charge that media advocates call an attempt to curb her news site's critical coverage of President Rodrigo Duterte. Rappler has written extensively and often critically on Mr Duterte's policies, including his deadly war on drugs. Ms Ressa and Rappler have also been hit with a string of criminal charges, prompting allegations that authorities are targeting her and her team for their work. Reporters Without Borders ranked the Philippines 134th out of 178 countries on its annual World Press Freedom index this year.


Changi Airport in April opened a S$1.7 billion ($1.26 billion) retail and nature-themed complex that aims to give it a competitive edge as an air hub in the region. The 135,700-square-metre, 10-storey complex, named Jewel Changi Airport, offers 280 retail and food outlets as well as a hotel and is linked to Terminals 1, 2 and 3. It houses the world's largest man-made indoor waterfall, surrounded by a lush artificially created rainforest. Standing 40 metres tall, the gigantic circular water feature has become a major tourist destination.

A small Singapore opposition party has "corrected" online posts critical of the government under a new "fake news" law that rights groups say is being used to chill dissent. The Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), which has no seats in parliament, posted articles arguing that an increasing number of white-collar workers were losing their jobs. But the Ministry of Manpower said such jobs had been rising steadily since 2015. The SDP complied with the order but has lodged an appeal to test the limits of the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, or Pofma as it's known in the acronym-happy city-state.


Vietnam has called on China -- again -- to refrain from conducting "provocative activities" that could threaten security in the South China Sea next year when Hanoi takes over the rotating Asean chairmanship. In July, China sparked tension when it sent a research ship to be stationed for months in an area that Vietnam designates as its exclusive economic zone but also claimed by Beijing. Vietnamese Deputy Foreign Minister Nguyen Quoc Dung said China has almost completed its reclamations of artificial islands and has militarised those features. Vietnam and the Philippines have been most vocal in expressing their unhappiness with China while Cambodia, essentially a client state of China, has been anxious not to aggravate Beijing.


China celebrated 70 years of Communist Party rule in October, touting the nation's journey from a country broken by war and poverty to the world's second-largest economy, as crowds took their seats at Tiananmen Square for a huge military parade. Meanwhile, the New York Times obtained a rare and huge leak of Chinese government documents that shed new light on a security crackdown on Muslims in Xinjiang, where President Xi Jinping ordered officials to act with "absolutely no mercy" against separatism and extremism. Rights groups and outside experts say over million Uighurs and other mostly Muslim minorities have been rounded up in a network of internment camps across the far-western region. China denied the camps, describing them as vocational schools aimed at dampening the allure of Islamist extremism and violence.


Emperor Akihito of Japan stepped down from the throne on April 30, marking the first abdication by a Japanese monarch in almost two centuries. In May, Naruhito succeeded his father and ushered in the beginning of the Reiwa era.

Strains on the fragile Korean Peninsula intensified as relations between Japan and South Korea nosedived in a dispute over history. Seoul is demanding that Japan pay "appropriate reparations" for atrocities committed during the Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula from 1910-45, particularly the use of forced labour. Japan considers the issue to be settled under an earlier treaty. Tokyo subsequently dropped South Korea from its list of most trusted trading partners after a court in Seoul. However, in December, leaders of China, Japan and South Korea held a summit in China in an attempt to amid feuds over trade, military manoeuvrings and historical animosities. The three leaders agreed on one thing, which is a commitment to ending North Korea's nuclear and missile programmes.


Provocative rhetoric from Pyongyang continued as the North Korean regime reminded the United States that it had until the end of 2019 to come up with a better offer, such as broad sanctions relief, if it wanted to see talks on denuclearisation move forward. Little progress has been made since the collapse of the second Kim-Trump summit in Hanoi last January. Optimism has been further dimmed by strings of missile tests.


Taiwan became the first place in Asia to legalise same-sex marriage in May and more than 2,000 same sex couples have since wed, prompting a rush of commercial surrogacy agencies to head to Taiwan to help more LGBT+ couples seeking to start families. In October, some 200,000 revellers marched through Taipei in a riot of rainbow colours and celebration as Taiwan held its first pride parade since making history in Asia. The legislation stirred hope that other places in the region would follow suit. However, a Hong Kong court ruled against allowing same-sex unions, a setback for efforts to broaden recognition of such partnerships in Asia. Litigation for marriage equality is currently under way in Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea.


Narendra Modi secured a landslide win in the 2019 general election, with his Bharatiya Janata Party alone gaining 303 of the 543 seats in parliament, and his political alliance winning 353 seats in total. But Mr Modi is now presiding over a markedly cooler economy. GDP growth touched a six-year low of 4.5% in the quarter and government debt is at 68.1% of GDP, a figure the IMF says should be below 60%. Mr Modi and his Hindu nationalist enablers have also inflamed sectarian passions by ending the special status of Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir. And as the year drew to a close, Indians of all persuasions were marching in the streets to decry a new citizenship law that is decidedly anti-Muslim no matter how the government attempts to spin it.


New South Wales, Australia's most populous state, was paralysed by catastrophic fires in December amid soaring temperatures. The annual Australian fire season, which peaks during the Southern Hemisphere summer, started early after an unusually warm and dry winter. Around 3 million hectares of land have burned nationwide, with nine people killed and over 800 homes destroyed. Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who went on a family vacation in Hawaii during the crisis, felt more than his share of heat when he returned.


New Zealand will be a safer place after owners handed in more than 50,000 guns during a buyback programme following a ban on assault weapons, authorities said in December. But critics called the process flawed and said many owners had illegally stashed their firearms. The government banned the most lethal types of semi-automatic weapons less than a month after a lone gunman in March killed 51 worshippers at two Christchurch mosques. The slaughter by an avowed white supremacist stunned the usually peaceful, isolated country, casting a spotlight on the ease with which the accused killer, an Australian, legally purchased the semi-automatic weapons.

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