If on the one hand Asia looks forward to 2018 with confidence, on the other there are signs of crisis both in the form of the slowing down and restructuring of the economy in several countries and tensions in the Korean peninsula and elsewhere.
Sustained growth in the entire region will again be led most of all by the emerging countries: China, India, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines. With a gross domestic product close to thirty billion dollars, Pacific Asia is becoming the largest trade area in the world, opening up the possibility of further expansion in initiatives and investment. This ought to contribute also in 2018 to the reduction of poverty, the creation of jobs and to the incentive for economic growth. Most of all it helps – and this is the main challenge in 2018 – to develop the RECI (Regional Economic Cooperation and Integration).
The situation is on the whole positive but does not exclude unknowns which partly depend upon the overall regional strategic conditions but also upon the uncertainties imposed by electoral returns on governments.
In the Philippines, for example, strong economic growth runs the risk of contrasts by the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte. Abuses, dictatorial tendencies, economic inconsistencies and relations with its ally the United States and its ever closer strategic and opportunistic relations with China, put pressure on its economy and development and place a burden on the diaspora of ten million of its citizens who increase the gross national product of the country with an essential flow of money. At the same time, the Philippines is the leading country in the tensions in the South China Sea which Peking claims for itself, though opposed by half a dozen countries. These tensions and the danger of an escalation will also be there in 2018.
In the same area, half of the ten countries that make up ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Countries) which celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in October 2017 will see significant electoral returns. This includes Indonesia where local elections will indicate the country’s political tendency and the degree of satisfaction of the largest Moslem country in the world with an administration led by the reformist president Joko Widodo.
Indonesia is certainly worth observing for its role as a bridge between modernity and tolerance and Islamist tensions, a role increasingly prominent in containing fears of contagion by armed fundamentalism from the Middle East in a strategic area of Asia that includes Indonesia, the Southern Philippines and Southern Thailand.
The August elections will be decisive both for the stability of the country and for the dominion, unbroken since independence, of UMNO (United Malay National Organization), whose leader and premier Najib Razak is now struggling to gain the agreement of his entire party for his policies. Scandals, corruption and manoeuvres contrary to freedom and civil rights have undermined his credibility. A decisive factor in view of the elections is the chief adversary of Najib, his nemesis for the past fifteen years, Anwar Ibrahim. The latter could be released from prison in May and, while in opposition, take over the leadership denied him in the 2013 elections. Another factor could be the support of the former prime minister, the ninety two-year-old Mahathir Mohamad, who was in power up to 2003, and went into opposition in the ranks of the Pakatan Harapan coalition led by the wife of Ibrahim, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail.
In Cambodia, parliamentary elections will be held on 29 July but the Cambodian People’s Party led by strong man prime minister Hun Sen may run without opposition. In 2017, the moves that led successively to the voluntary exile of Sam Rainsy, founder of the San Rainsy Party for the national salvation of Cambodia; the deprival of legal status of his second in command Kem Sokha who was the focal point of opposition until his arrest on 2 September, the campaign of aggression that forced his wife to flee the country and, finally, the start of the legal process to eventually dissolve the opposition party, are stages of a process with an obvious purpose.
The advance of the opposition in the politics of 2013 still carries weight. In that year they showed how opposition to the all-powerful Hun Sen was transferred from the streets to Parliament.
The sixteen million Cambodians still suffer from the dark years of the Khmer Rouge, from pacification and reconstruction, and the majority, even after decades, have no share in prosperity or acceptable working conditions but are in danger of finding themselves with no political representatives in an electoral game that may well take to the streets with unpredictable results. Diplomacy and international organisations have been mobilised to moderate what seems to be the final offensive of the prime minister against the opposition but, until now, this has only led to the tightening of the embrace of Hun Sen and Peking.
Thailand. The military Party.
Again, on the theme of elections, but with the background of a military regime that follows its own course of increasingly vast and radical control of the country, with forms of democracy for the benefit of diplomacy and its own economic interests, we have only to look at Thailand. Though they cannot be taken for granted after the previous postponements and are already marked as possibly being held in 2019 to stick to procedures that increase delays to such an extent that it is impossible to keep to the planned schedule, the elections are, for the present, scheduled for November, 2018.
All independent observers agree that the elections may never be held and will be held only if the military and the power groups behind them are certain to win. Whether this will happen, further blocking any political activity so much as to render correct elections a practical impossibility, by means of post-vote sleight of hand or, more probably, by creating a ‘Military Party’, is still to be seen. With the cremation on 27 October last year of the king Rama IX, after a year of mourning, one of the main motivations for the coup of May 2014, the peaceful transition of the monarchy, disappeared. The other motivations summed up in the simple slogan ‘restore happiness to the people’, in the opinion of many, delegitimised a regime that pursues policies of censure, arbitrary arrest, the suppression of all criticism, the imposition of initiatives of ‘development’ opposed by the local population and by ecologists, and the purchase of arms, including heavy weapons, in quantities never before witnessed in the country.
Seeing all this, we may foresee, even without a definitive solution, that in the year 2018 the question of the Rohyngya will play a decisive role in Myanmar – especially due to international relations. Only time will tell if these people who follow the faith of Islam, who are denied citizenship and are subjected to persecution bordering on genocide by the armed forces and nationalist groups, some of which under Buddhist influence, will be allowed to return from the refugee camps of Bangladesh and from the even more distant diaspora communities. One thing is certain. The credibility of the country, whether capital and investment will come from countries other than its traditional allies China and Russia or, significantly, of the government in effect guided by Aung San Suu Kyi, will very much depend on the destiny of this ethnic group called the Rohyngya. Myanmar was strongly criticised for its reluctance to defend the rights of the Rohyngya to security and a homeland during the crisis that began on 25 August, 2017 resulting in the flight of more than 600,000 people forced to flee by an indiscriminate and brutal military campaign widely condemned by the global community, even if it was sparked off by incursions of armed Rohyngya militants into Myanmar. The 27-30 September visit of Pope Francis, as well as his following visit to Bangladesh, brought their plight to the fore, initiated a process of recognising their condition and increased pressure on the Myanmar government and military to reach a final solution.
Afghanistan. War against the Taliban
Afghanistan is to go to the polls on 7 July, after the parliamentary elections planned for autumn 2016 were cancelled due to inadequate electoral laws. Since then, the process has been marked by efforts to hold elections soon which would restore greater stability to a country engaged in a protracted war against the Taliban and struggling with the challenges of development. Since the dissolution of parliament in June 2015, all laws have been passed by presidential decree.
An ally of the Afghan government and increasingly aiming to open up to foreign initiatives that will increase employment, wealth and technological development, India looks forward to a time of innovation and the consolidation of the benefits gained in recent years. In particular, the political and economic policies created by the nationalist government led by Narendra Modi – including areas of coercion such as the policy of reducing the amount of cash in circulation and the introduction, where possible, of electronic payments and transactions – place the country in a prospective of competition with the great China but also of complementarity with its neighbour. Modi is banking on innovation and a remarkably young population to lay the foundations of a process which has ample possibilities of being realised, but which depends on innovative policies and internal and regional stability even more than China does. A further challenge is the need to overcome the contradictions within the country such as discrimination, corruption and illegal trade and to achieve the egalitarian participation by ethnic, social and religious minorities in the life of the nation.
In the Far East, while Japan goes ahead with its expectations that with the abdication of the emperor planned for the spring of 2019, the first for more than two centuries, pressure will grow to transform into welfare and the re-launching of employment the hitherto see-sawing results of the policies of the government. Abenomics. However, there will also be more pressure from the Liberal-Democratic Party and the executive led by Shinzo Abe for a constitutional amendment that will allow the forces of self-defence to operate abroad and, perhaps, to open the doors to nuclear war if the Korean threat were to be concretised in acts of war.
North Korean. A negotiated solution.
The unknowns in the situation of the Korean peninsula run the risk of weighing heavily on all the region with options that go from an implosion of the North Korean regime to open war that would not only create a scenario of devastation but would be an economic burden on a vital area of the world and with unforeseeable effects on global connections. Lastly, a negotiated solution which, to the contrary, would augur the cooperation and growth of the leading regional countries.
Finally The People’s Republic of China will live in the shadow of the Communist Party Congress which in October confirmed the unprecedented power and the policies of president Xi Jinping. This presupposes a year of reforms to the financial system, of commitment against corruption and bribery in the party and in the State, of elements non-functional to the present administration, to the expansion of consumption and welfare, so as to avoid reactions to the announced policy of the reduction of inefficient public companies. It will follow the two-track system of affirming its supremacy (diplomatic and strategic) in the East and its participation in international affairs. This depends upon growth of more than six per cent tied to the reduction of speculation that endangers the entire system and on the required expansion of internal consumption.