Shu-Wen Chye provides a round-up of the Asia Pacific in 2015, and highlights what to look for in 2016.
For many in the Asia Pacific, 2015 tested the political prowess and limits of the region. The year saw territorial disputes over the South China Sea; an imploding Rohingya refugee crisis in Myanmar; frightening forest fires in Indonesia and an environmental catastrophe that affected its neighbors for months; a Chinese currency devaluation that rocked the global economy; and Japan and South Korea’s landmark deal that aims to settle the issue of wartime “comfort women.”
But 2015 wasn’t all that bleak: ASEAN, or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, created a regional trade bloc that was a decade in the making; Myanmar experienced a groundbreaking election; the ruling party in Singapore reasserted electoral power after the passing of Lee Kuan Yew; the Bandung spirit lived on through the Asia-Africa Conference; Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi flexed China and India’s soft (and hard) power muscles through their world tours; and Beijing abolished its controversial one-child policy.
But what lies ahead for the region in 2016?
The Vietnam Communist Party (VCP) will hold its 12th national party congress in January. While the country’s foreign policy is not expected to change, the selection of Vietnam’s future leadership will have implications on its stance over the South China Sea dispute and its relations with China.
In mid-January, Taiwan will hold presidential and parliamentary elections, and it is believed the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) will ride to “an easy victory” against the ruling Kuomintang (KMT), due to the party’s plans of slowing down the state’s reconciliation with Mainland China.
South Koreans will head to the polls in April for parliamentary elections. The vote will be a test for President Park Guen-hye’s administration, which has seen its popularity dip after plans to reform the labor market and adopt a state-approved history textbook.
In the Philippines, more than 18,000 congressional and local posts will be decided in presidential and parliamentary elections on May 9. World champion boxer Manny Pacquiao’s senatorial bid is just one of the many glitzy highlights of what is expected to be a colorful election.
And last but not least, Australia will go to the polls for parliamentary elections in late 2016. The Labor Party are expected to be in a favorable position of regaining power especially after a tumultuous political past, which has seen five prime ministers in power since 2010.
Swimming With or Against International Currents?
Aside from the economic benefits the Asia Pacific stands to gain from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), it will also experience China’s attempt of expanding its influence in the region through its initiative, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). All eyes will be on the AIIB’s ambitious agenda and claims of complementing—and not competing with—existing international institutions such as the Asian Development Bank, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.
Another trade pact known as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is due to join the ranks of the TPP and TTIP “sometime” this year. Leaders from 16 countries—including ASEAN, China, Japan and India—have been negotiating the terms of the deal since 2013. Once in effect, the RCEP will represent nearly half of the world’s population (3.4 billion people) and have a combined GDP of $22.7 trillion, or 30% of the global output.
The US presidential elections in 2016 will also have an impact on the Asia Pacific. If Hillary Clinton is elected, she is likely to continue President Barack Obama’s pivot to Asia. US-China relations will continue to be one of strategic rivalry, even as the economic and geopolitical stakes in bilateral cooperation “become more deeply rooted and fundamental.”
South-South relations will deepen as well. More Asian countries are set to establish greater economic linkages with Africa through the newly created Asia-Africa Business Council and individual initiatives, just as how Malaysia has done. Asian-Latin American relations will see a boost in areas such as export promotion, urban planning, poverty reduction and financial regulation—with China and India predicted to deepen economic interactions with Latin America.
Finally, how the Asia Pacific deals with climate change is one integral issue that will be on every country’s cards in 2016. Following the Paris climate change deal that was brokered in December, the responsibility of reducing emissions ultimately lies with the region, due to Asia being responsible for the biggest proportion of global emissions. China and India’s slow but steady approach toward air pollution, Indonesia’s unclear haze reforms, and various countries’ stretched resources in dealing with the increasing occurrence of floods and typhoons might mean that climate change reform is likely to remain vague in the year ahead.
On a lighter note, it’s worth mentioning that New Zealand will vote to change its flag in March. While some predict that the majority of voters will choose to keep the current flag, New Zealand’s decision to create a new identity—replacing the upper-left-corner Union Jack, a sign of colonialism, with a fern leaf—is one of many signs of how the region as a whole is trying to come into its own future.
Here’s to the Asia Pacific ushering in the Year of the Monkey. Happy New Year!
*[Note: This article was updated on January 3, 2016, at 02:50 GMT.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.