2020 slowed Asia's march but there is hope yet

The continent faces myriad challenges, but it might still be able to outpace the West in terms of recovery

epa08821197 A handout image of a video conference made available by the Vietnam News Agency (VNA) shows leaders and trade ministers of 15 Asia-Pacific nations posing for a virtual group photo during the 4th Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) Summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, 15 November 2020. Fifteen Asia-Pacific nations signed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) on 15 November, making it the world' largest free trade deal at the end of an annual summit of Southeast Asian leaders and regional partners.  EPA/VNA HANDOUT  HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES
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At the beginning of 2020, the Asia Foundation, a US-based non-profit organisation, laid out its predictions for the year. They were generally cautiously optimistic. The picture has not turned out to be so rosy, and not just because of Covid-19 – although the pandemic may push 160 million people into poverty across the continent, according to the Asian Development Bank (ADB). But quite apart from that, nearly every country in South-East and East Asia has faced challenges, many unexpected, that have left them more unsettled and less certain of their future directions than at the dawn of 2020. It has been a year of unease, the back of which most will be pleased to see.

In Malaysia, the Pakatan Harapan coalition government headed by the 95-year-old former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad fell apart in February, to be succeeded by a new coalition led by Muhyiddin Yassin. Mr Muhyiddin has decades of experience and was thought to have steered the country well through the first phase of the virus's spread. But his Perikatan Nasional government has a wafer-thin majority, and its major constituent parties all fought each other at the last general election. The political instability caused Fitch, the American credit rating agency, to downgrade the country's sovereign ratings for the first time since the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997, and there is a serious worry that Malaysia could face a series of unsteady coalitions if MPs are tempted to jump ship again.

A woman passes by a mural depicting Malaysia's Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia October 27, 2020. REUTERS/Lim Huey Teng
A mural in Kuala Lumpur depicting Malaysia's Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who has faced a few setbacks in recent times. Reuters

Thailand has seen unprecedented demonstrations against its monarchy, criticism of which was previously taboo, and which had hitherto been seen as a pillar of stability in a country where democratic elections alternate with military coups. In Singapore, a very public row between Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and members of his family has created waves in the normally calm waters of the city-state's politics, as did the relatively poor showing of the ruling People's Action Party and Mr Lee's designated successor Heng Swee Keat in July's election.

Vietnam ends the year having been designated a "currency manipulator" by the US Department of Treasury, with analysts in South Korea warning that tariffs on Vietnam could have adverse effects on both economies. Cambodia no longer has access to the European Union market under its "Everything But Arms" preferential treatment of Least Developed Countries; key exports such as garments will now be subject to duties due to what the EU calls "serious and systematic concerns related to human rights in the country". China may well be willing to make up any ensuing trade shortfall, but the country's longstanding leader, Prime Minister Hun Sen, has to pay at least some attention to both domestic and external warnings that his administration's dependence on Beijing does not become over-dependence.

The Philippines' President Rodrigo Duterte finds himself once more in the crosshairs of the International Criminal Court, whose chief prosecutor has just issued a report saying that there was "a reasonable basis to believe that the crimes against humanity of murder, torture and the infliction of serious physical injury and mental harm" had been committed by government employees. In Indonesia, President Joko Widodo has to deal with a section of his population that is overly tolerant of Islamist extremism and the evident popularity of the firebrand cleric Rizieq Shihab, the leader of the thuggish and misnamed Islamic Defenders Front, who has returned from exile.

FILE PHOTO: A view of the Mekong river bordering Thailand and Laos is seen from the Thai side in Nong Khai, Thailand, October 29, 2019. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun/File Photo
A view of the Mekong River bordering Thailand and Laos. Questions have increased over what China's growing assertiveness will bring for Asia, including in terms of what upriver damming means for countries for which waterways such as the Mekong are their lifeblood. Reuters

November's election in Myanmar demonstrated that Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy was more popular than ever, despite their complicity in the ethnic cleansing and other atrocities committed against the Rohingya minority, over 750,000 of whom have fled to Bangladesh since 2017. It seems unlikely that many will either be able or want to return home, leaving the region with a huge refugee crisis and no resolution anywhere in sight.

Questions have only increased over what China's growing assertiveness will bring for Asia, not only in the disputed leagues of the South China Sea but also in terms of what upriver damming means for countries for which waterways such as the Mekong are their lifeblood. And over and above it all, the rising hostility between Beijing and Washington casts a pall over every country. Precious few states, even US treaty allies such as the Philippines, want to take sides against China. For as the Malay saying has it: "When two elephants fight, the mousedeer in between gets trampled."

The fabled – and rather cliched – Asian fatalism is no refuge against a sense that destiny may be decided by others, and that the stability which the now 10-member Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean) was formed to fight for in 1967 is at risk, both within states and the wider region.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump takes part in a welcoming ceremony with China's President Xi Jinping in Beijing, China, November 9, 2017. To match Special Report HUAWEI-USA/CAMPAIGN REUTERS/Damir Sagolj/File Photo
US President Donald Trump being welcomed China's President Xi Jinping in Beijing in 2017. The rising hostility between Beijing and Washington casts a pall over every country in Asia. Reuters

Asean's great strength is that it is the convener and originator of the economic and diplomatic architecture of the Asia-Pacific, from the Apec and East Asia Summit meetings to the recently agreed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, the world's largest trade deal. It is for this reason that "Asean Centrality" must be reasserted in 2021. For whatever problems individual countries have internally, the greater political-security context will matter just as much in the long run.

Fortunately, there is some good news. The ADB expects the 45 countries that group together as "developing Asia" to rebound in 2021, with average growth of over 6 per cent. That would be a happy backdrop to the World Economic Forum in May, which is to be held not in the Swiss town of Davos as usual, but in Singapore. If Asia can show then that it has pulled out of the pandemic and its associated recession while Europe and North America are still struggling, that would be at least one reason to cheer next year – after a 2020 most would rather forget.

Sholto Byrnes is an East Asian affairs columnist for The National