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The Asia Pacific in 2017

Chye Shu Wen provides a round-up of events in 2016 and highlights what can be expected in 2017.

There is no doubt that 2016 will go down as a year that overwhelmed the Asia Pacific: Brexit and the victory of Donald Trump sent shockwaves across the region; the electoral wins of Taiwan’s first female president, Tsai Ing-wen, and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines resulted in both countries recalibrating their bargaining powers in regional and international politics; political scandals plagued Malaysia and South Korea; Hong Kong’s legislative elections sent a strong signal to China; and the Rohingya refugee crisis continued to make hit headlines.

While 2017 promises to be as tumultuous as the year before, what are some key events and trends we can expect?

Trans-Pacific Partnership

The electoral victory of Donald Trump has marked the end of the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia,” with the president-elect promising to withdraw the United States from the yet-to-be-ratified Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) on his first day in office.

In a Brookings Institute article, Mireya Solis says the TPP has the potential of gaining a new lease of life sans the US. However, it remains to be seen how it will fare against three competing trade deals that are bringing China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to the centerfold: the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific, and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

While the Philippines has been cozying up to China in an attempt to shore up more credibility as a reliable partner in Asian economic integration, most countries in the region are unlikely to turn their backs against the West completely.

Approaching with Caution

The South China Sea dispute will continue to make headlines this year. China’s quick dismissal of The Hague ruling in July 2016, which declared that Beijing had violated the Philippines’ sovereignty over the Spratly Islands, only led to the superpower continuing its build-up of military defenses on the islands.

Observers have commented that confrontation on open waters between China, the US and other countries that have competing claims on the islands is likely, given that Trump’s unpredictable and assertive nature toward policies like the “One China” principle has already drawn criticism from China.

There is, however, a possibility that Chinese President Xi Jinping’s administration will refrain from being overtly aggressive or hostile as it will be busy with housekeeping issues in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

The CCP’s 19th National Congress in late 2017 will be one of the biggest political events of the year, with the ruling party selecting and announcing the country’s next leaders. President Xi will be expected to be given a second term, having declared himself to be the “core leader” of the CCP in October 2016.

This National Congress is expected to produce the greatest shakeup in the politburo standing committee, where four or five top leaders of the CCP will retire and be replaced with Xi’s allies. All this is part of President Xi’s long-term plan of securing his position of power until 2022 or beyond. And during this precarious year of power transitions, China is unlikely to be overtly hostile to the two countries that have been causing it many grievances of late: Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Relations with both countries will continue to be tested. For Taiwan, President Tsai Ing-wen is likely to push the boundaries to show her country’s rejection of the “One China” principle. For neighboring Hong Kong, the chief executive elections in March will be a major litmus test for pro-democracy and pro-independence camps, which have suffered setbacks after two elected pro-independence activists were ousted from the legislature.

This year also marks the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to China from the British. It is an anniversary in which the pro-democracy camp might capitalize on to drum-up support for pro-democracy/independence sentiments, given that China has been using a carrot-and-stick approach in implementing the “one country, two systems” policy in recent years.

Beyond China, two elections in East Asia and Southeast Asia will also be worth looking out for.

First, in South Korea, the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye has resulted in disarray in the country, and a protracted political crisis is only likely to worsen domestic economic problems. Troubles in Seoul have also encouraged North Korea to ramp up its nuclear capabilities to heighten tensions, and it might not come as a surprise if Tokyo and Beijing decide to increase its nuclear security and capabilities in the name of defense.

Second, in Thailand, the death of the longest reigning monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, might mean that general elections that had been promised by the military junta might be forestalled, given that the country is in mourning for a year.

Against the Tide of Intolerance

The most pressing issue that ASEAN will be dealing with over the next few months is that of the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar and the glaringly obvious state of emergency Rakhine State is in. The exodus of Rohingya refugees to Malaysia, Thailand and Bangladesh—which began in 2015—increased dramatically in the last quarter of 2016 following the Burmese government’s security crackdown after border raids by Rakhine militants. Reports about Burmese soldiers torturing villagers, raping women and burning down homes in Rohingya villages have sparked protests by Muslims in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand.

donate to nonprofit media organizationsA recent report by Refugees International recommended that ASEAN address the root causes behind the crisis “by engaging the government of Myanmar on solutions, including granting citizenship to Rohingya in the long-term and freedom of movement in the short-term.”

While State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi did fulfill this by calling the foreign ministers from ASEAN to Myanmar on December 19, 2016, to discuss accusations of “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing” taking place, the Nobel laureate’s plea for “time and space” for her government to “resolve” the Rohingya crisis should be taken with a spoonful of salt.

ASEAN has to continue its engagement with the government to ensure that humanitarian assistance is allowed to reach affected areas within Rakhine State. The ASEAN members who are housing thousands of refugees should also walk the talk of recognizing the rights of Rohingya by ensuring access to basic services, including healthcare and education in their countries.

The urgency to “resolve” the Rohingya crisis should also be viewed through the rise of Islamic populism and race-based politics in countries like Malaysia and Indonesia in recent months.

Fears of radicalization developing within the Rohingya communities are, therefore, not unfounded. The longer this crisis drags on, the more challenging it will be for the Myanmar government and ASEAN to find viable solutions if terrorist groups such as Harakah al-Yaqin become deeply involved with their cause of liberating the Rohingya by triggering a spiral of violence.

The Asia Pacific has a mammoth task of treading an altered world order that has been marred by the volatility of populist politics. But it might be worth taking a leaf out of Beijing’s book for its sense of humor toward politics for the rest of the year, beginning with the creation of a Lunar New Year rooster statue in China that bears a resemblance to President-Elect Donald Trump.

Happy New Year!

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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