2015 and the Lunar Year that was: from good to bad

As large parts of Asia celebrate the arrival of the Lunar New Year (February 8), it’s in with the Year of the Monkey.

But before the lunar year past and the Year of the Sheep recedes into memory, we take our annual look back at the people and events that made headlines across Asia, for good and for bad, in places near and far to Bhutan.

Our choice last time around for worst year in Asia went to Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya minority – persecuted at home and increasingly ignored by business and political leaders hungry to engage with the new Burma.  Time will tell whether their plight will be any better under a Parliament new led by the party of one-time democracy activist and icon Aung San Suu Kyi.

When 2015 wrapped, we took to CNN to share an initial take on the best and worst of the year behind us.  A deadly earthquake in Nepal and landmark elections – in Myanmar, of course, but also in Singapore and most recently in Taiwan – as well as South China Sea territorial disputes and trans-Pacific trade deals captured regional news headlines providing fertile ground for our choices. In some nations, like Australia, government leaders changed quickly. In others, including Thailand, they did not.

So, as the lunar Year of the Monkey arrives, here is our updated list of this past year’s “winners,” from bad to good.  Congratulations of a sort to all.

Worst year:  Asia’s lungs – for facing down “airpocalypse” now

Bhutan is known for its forests, its rivers and its blue skies.  But all too often and across too many parts of Asia including in nearby India, starting the day has meant donning a facemask or perhaps a hacking cough.

The culprit is the region’s declining air quality as development brought more factories and cars to an increasingly urbanized region.  This is particularly true in some of the region’s largest nations, including in China, India and Indonesia – but also in their neighbors. Pollution knows no boundaries.

India’s “National Health Profile” reported nearly 3.5 million cases of acute respiratory infection in 2014.  That’s a 30% increase since 2010.  The World Health Organization says 13 of the top 20 most polluted cities worldwide are in India.

In China, Beijing issued its first ever “red alert” smog days as the nation’s notorious pollution returned with a vengeance this winter. Now banned in China, CCTV reporter Chai Jing’s online documentary “Under the Dome” told of how her country’s poor air quality contributed to the premature death of 500,000 people from cardiovascular and cardiorespiratory disease.

And in Southeast Asia, a “haze” from fires used to clear forest land in Indonesia for agricultural use led to school and business closures. Thousands sought care for respiratory ailments and at least 19 deaths were reported as smoke darkened skies in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and even parts of Thailand and the Philippines.

Bad year: Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak – for taking Asian forbearance for granted

The latest development in an alleged corruption scandal from a nation that touts itself as “Truly Asia,” has Malaysian Attorney General Apandi Ali declaring that Prime Minister Najib Razak has committed no criminal offence.

The declaration followed an investigation into how some US$ 700 million showed up in Najib’s personal bank accounts.  Apandi has said the money was a donation from Saudi Arabia, and has since been returned.  All this followed the Wall Street Journal’s reporting that the money was possibly linked to the financially troubled 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB). The state-owned investment company 1MDB had been founded in part by Najib to invest in property, infrastructure and energy projects.

What’s next? Stay tuned for the next “1MDB Scandal” episode from Malaysia. The nation’s antigraft agency has sought a review of the attorney general’s decision to clear Najib, and investigations reportedly continue outside the country. Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad also continues to call for his successor’s departure.

Not-so-good-year: Modi & Jokowi – for believing their own hype a little too much

Last year, we gave Asia’s “new management” – India’s Narendra Modi and Indonesia’s Joko “Jokowi” Widodo along with China’s Xi Jinping and Japan’s Shinzo Abe – the award for best year in Asia.  Modi and Jokowi were seen as pro-business and reform-minded with agendas that had the potential to kick into high gear their countries’ economies.

What a difference a year makes.  Entrenched economic interests and a “little bric” of bureaucracy, regulation, interventionism and corruption continue to impede the structural changes needed to attract more foreign direct investment and drive long-term job creation.

Struggling Chinese and Japanese economies, Jokowi’s declining approval ratings and the defeat of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party in two regional elections signal that the honeymoon is over.  In earthquake-stricken Nepal, the hashtag #BackOffIndia trended as needed goods were stopped at the border due to ethnic and political disputes. Japan wrapped up the year by introducing negative interest rates. Meanwhile, China’s currency and stock market interventions risk being seen as more about trust in market manipulation than market forces.

Good year:  Trans-Pacific Partnership – for putting some oomph into the US pivot to Asia

Disagreements over “rule of origin” and pharmaceutical and diary products threatened to delay once again the conclusion of negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a major international trade pact.  But, on October 5 came news that negotiators had overcome all obstacles and reached agreement.

Begun in 2007 as an exploratory services and investment negotiation between Brunei, Chile, New Zealand and Singapore and the United States during the Administration of President George W. Bush, the TPP now encompasses 12 Pacific-rim nations and covers 40 percent of world trade.

TPP signatories Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the U.S., and Vietnam must each now ratify the deal. That is where the hard work truly begins. This is especially true in the United States where trade agreements don’t fare well during an election year.

Even the leading Democratic candidates have come out to join Donald Trump against what should be one of the Obama Administration’s signature accomplishments.  In Japan, Akira Amari, the nation’s economics minister and a leading proponent of the TPP, recently resigned over a bribery scandal.

That doesn’t stop us from awarding the TPP the honor of “good year in Asia.”

Best year: Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank – for shaking up the status quo

When China first floated the idea of establishing a new development bank to help finance Asia’s infrastructure, critics countered by asking whether it was necessary. Others feared a new China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) would become an extension of Chinese power and a further challenge to the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, led respectively by American and Japanese presidents.

The United States and Japan in particular also raised questions about governance and project-lending “standards” at the AIIB.

But money talks.  The United Kingdom was the first U.S. ally to break ranks with the Obama Administration over joining the new AIIB. Nearly 60 nations, including Myanmar and the rest of Southeast Asia, ultimately signed on as founding members of the new $100 billion institution.  And the first projects are expected to be announced by April if not sooner.

By Curtis S. Chin & Jose B. Collazo

Curtis S. Chin, a former U.S. ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC. Jose B. Collazo is a Southeast Asia analyst and an associate at RiverPeak Group. Follow Curtis and Jose on Twitter at @CurtisSChin and @JoseBCollazo.

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