Year of turbulence

Nuclear anxiety trumped by trade tension, while natural disasters raise ominous questions

Two unpredictable men with weird haircuts and access to nuclear weapons had a friendly chat in Singapore -- and that was just one of the many noteworthy stories of 2018. Elsewhere in Asia, we witnessed some surprising political developments (Malaysia) and not-so-surprising ones (Cambodia), along with what seemed to be a disturbingly high number of natural disasters. Many see the latter as a manifestation of the growing impact of climate change, and it's a debate that is bound to intensify in the year ahead. Below, Asia Focus looks back on the eventful year now ending.


Tariff terror: The trade war between the United States and China dominated the headlines and will make waves well into 2019, depending on whether the current truce leads to a settlement. US President Donald Trump maintains that Beijing doesn't play by the rules, makes it hard for US companies to do business in China and regularly steals American firms' intellectual property.

Mr Trump began by imposing 25% tariffs on US$50 billion worth of Chinese imports and Beijing retaliated in kind. Washington then slapped another set of tariffs on $200 billion in Chinese goods. The initial rate of 10% was scheduled to rise to 25% in January before Mr Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed on a cease-fire until March.

Things took a grim turn when Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Canada, at Washington's request, but US officials said her case -- she is accused of sanctions-busting -- had nothing to do with the trade dispute. The truce is holding, for now. But economists fear a prolonged trade war could cast a shadow over the world economy.


- Leader for life: President Xi Jinping will remain China's undisputed ruler for as long as he likes, after the National People's Congress voted to do away with the two-term limit that had been in place since the 1990s. Former leader Deng Xiaoping introduced term limits to ensure stability and prevent the development of personality cults following the turbulent rule of Mao Zedong. Speaking of cults, the Communist Party also decided to enshrine Xi's political thought in the constitution, elevating him to the level of Mao and Deng.

- Star-crossed: A broad-based crackdown on corruption has been a hallmark of the Xi Jinping era, but few cases created as much buzz as that of Fan Bingbing. The superstar, known outside China for appearances in the Iron Man and X-Men films, vanished from public view in July, reappearing in October when she was fined a staggering 883 million yuan (US$129 million) for tax evasion and other offences. Her case was part of a broader investigation into how celebrities report their earnings, and sent a strong message to taxpayers in general. Fan posted an apology online to her tens of millions of fans and is now working to revive her career.


No nukes? Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un became the first sitting US president and North Korean leader to meet when they got together in Singapore in June. They signed a "comprehensive" document in which North Korea committed to work toward "the complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula", with promises of "new relations" between Washington and Pyongyang.

Despite the high-profile destruction of one nuclear facility in the North, progress on the nuclear front has been negligible. Analysts say there are other nuclear sites that Pyongyang isn't talking about. But hopeful signs are emerging elsewhere in light of tireless work by South Korean President Moon Jae-in to engage with his neighbour. The first-ever peaceful crossing by North and South Korean soldiers over the Demilitarized Zone was one such example.


- Last gasp:Delhi became the most polluted major city on Earth in November as toxic smog settled over the capital, forcing many residents indoors and sending others to hospital with respiratory distress. The air quality index, which measures poisonous particulate matter (PPM), worsened further in December, climbing as high as 450, classified as "severe to emergency". Any reading above 100 is unhealthy.

Years of breakneck growth in auto sales, coal-fired power generation and other factors including burning of fields in the countryside, have been blamed. Environmentalists blame authorities for focusing on temporary responses while side-stepping more effective, long-term measures that would address the sources of pollution and promote cleaner fuels.

Kerala suffers: At least 480 people died in the southern Indian state of Kerala in August in what local authorities said was the worst flooding in 100 years. More than a million people were displaced and many villages remained uninhabitable a month after the inundation. The state government said full rehabilitation could cost as much as $3.5 billion.


- Nature's wrath: Japan experienced a series of natural disasters including volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and typhoons. A 5.5 earthquake in Osaka killed four people and injured more than 400 in June. That was followed by catastrophic floods in Hiroshima Prefecture which resulted in 200 deaths and left 1.5 million displaced. In July a heatwave was blamed for more than 100 deaths and 20,000 cases of heat stroke. In September, Typhoon Jebi and the 6.6 Hokkaido Eastern Iburi earthquake together killed more than 50 people.

- Political longevity: Shinzo Abe moved a step closer to becoming Japan's longest serving premier -- that milestone will occur in November 2019 -- after winning re-election as Liberal Democratic Party leader in September. The win effectively allows the 64-year-old leader to stay on as prime minister for three more years.


- Amity on ice:  The 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang in February became the feel-good games, with world attention captivated by a unified Korean women's ice hockey team. Norway topped the medal table with 39 while the hosts won 17, their highest at a Winter Olympics.

- Decades-old pain: South Korea and Japan appear no closer to resolving the troubling issue of World War II "comfort women". A South Korean foreign ministry spokesman this year said the 2015 deal with Japan to compensate forced sex slaves had failed to meet the victims' needs. In November Seoul said it would dissolve a Japanese-funded foundation to support the women, which prompted Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to say such a move could further damage relations between the countries.


Regime change by ballot box: Voters in Malaysia, fed up with corruption, expressed themselves decisively in the May 9 general election when they kicked out the Barisan National coalition that had run the country for 60 years. Mahathir Mohamad, returning to power at age 93 and after a 15-year absence, wasted no time pledging to clean up the mess.

The issue that galvanised Malaysian voters -- and which former premier Najib Razak tried to cover up -- involved the looting of as much as US$4.5 billion from the state investment fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd over many years. How much of that money ended up in the pockets of Mr Najib remains open to debate; he now faces 32 charges of corruption and money laundering. A further 17 counts of money laundering were laid against his wife, Rosmah Mansor. When the couple's properties were raided, police hauled away 284 boxes of designer handbags, including Hermes Birkin models that cost $10,000 or more, and 72 suitcases stuffed with 114 million ringgit ($27 million) in cash plus jewellery, designer watches and more.


- Badly shaken: Natural disasters on a large scale troubled Indonesia, among them a magnitude 7.5 earthquake that struck Central Sulawesi on Sept 28, triggering a tsunami and landslides. More than 2,000 people are known to have died and hundreds more are believed to have perished beneath tonnes of mud and rubble in the tsunami-hit city of Palu. The tragedy occurred less than two months after a series of quakes struck Lombok island, killing more than 500 people. As the year drew to a close, coastal areas of Java and Sumatra were recovering from a tsunami that struck with no warning on Dec 22 after the eruption and collapse of the Anak Krakatau volcano in the Sunda Strait. At least 429 people were killed.

Crash aftermath: Repercussions are continuing from the Oct 29 crash of a Lion Air passenger jet that went down in the sea minutes after taking off from Jakarta, killing all 189 people on board. It was Indonesia's worst air disaster in two decades. A preliminary report said pilots battled to control the Boeing 737 Max as faulty data from a sensor repeatedly forced the aircraft to tilt its nose down. The Indonesian National Transportation Safety Committee said a malfunctioning sensor wasn't repaired before the fatal flight -- even though it failed on the plane's previous trip. The plane's cockpit voice recorder has yet to be found. Boeing is examining a possible software fix, after coming under fire for not outlining changes to the automated system in the manual for the 737 Max. Lion Air, meanwhile, has threatened to cancel orders for $22 billion worth of Boeing planes.


Trigger finger: President Rodrigo Duterte admitted publicly for the first time what everyone has been saying for more than a year: that extrajudicial killings had happened under his government's brutal war on drugs. "What is my sin? Did I steal even one peso? Did I prosecute somebody who I ordered jailed? My only sin is the extrajudicial killings," he said while addressing a gathering of government officials on Sept 27. The Philippine National Police estimate that they have killed 4,500 users and dealers in the past two years, and that all of the killings were legitimate uses of force. Two complaints against Mr Duterte have been filed with the International Criminal Court, prompting him to withdraw his country from the organisation.

Pageant pride: Catriona Gray of the Philippines was crowned Miss Universe on Dec 17, becoming the fourth woman from her country to hold the title. The 24-year-old Filipina-Australian model was crowned in Bangkok, where the pageant for the first time featured a transgender contestant.


- Good hosts: The city-state basked in the world diplomatic spotlight in 2018 as the venue of the Trump-Kim summit, and asserted regional leadership as the chair of Asean. Setting up the June meeting between the US president and the North Korean leader, with all its attendant security demands, at a hotel on Sentosa Island, cost Singapore taxpayers US$15 million. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the country was willing to bear the cost "for a good cause".

- Change of the guard: The People's Action Party (PAP), the only government Singaporeans have ever known, has put in place the likely successor once Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong steps aside. The son of founding father Lee Kuan Yew will turn 67 in February and has said he wants to call it quits once he is 70. He is expected to stand in the 2021 election but at some point after that he would give way to Heng Swee Keat, currently finance minister. Mr Heng, 57, is seen as a safe pair of hands -- especially given that Singapore faces the challenge of keeping its open economy on an even keel in the face of rising protectionism and trade disputes.


Pointless poll: Strongman Hun Sen has embarked on another term as prime minister after his Cambodian People's Party (CPP) secured all 125 parliamentary seats in a virtually uncontested July 29 election that was derided internationally. The 66-year-old has been in power for 33 years and has said he intends to serve two more terms. By that time his son Hun Manet, now 41 and in charge of the army, is expected to take the reins. The Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), the only credible opposition, was dissolved in the run-up to the vote. With his grip on power assured, Hun Sen began to free the activists and government critics he had jailed earlier, as he sought to head off any further criticism from foreigners, especially those in charge of approving aid money.


Tarnished halo: State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi continues to shrink in stature among many people worldwide who once revered the Nobel Peace Prize winner. Their chief complaint is her seeming inability to hold the country's military accountable for a brutal campaign that sent hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims fleeing across the border to Bangladesh. Her defenders say Myanmar's civilian leader is facing challenges on multiple fronts, and that resolving numerous ethnic conflicts throughout the country, not just in Rakhine state, is a Herculean task. The military in December did announce a cessation of its activities in northern areas such as Kachin state, in what appeared to be a rare conciliatory move aimed at kick-starting peace talks.


Tough talk: President Nguyen Phu Trong is intensifying the crackdown on corruption and mismanagement "at every level" pursued by his predecessor Tran Dai Quang, who died in September. Though Vietnam has one of Asean's best performing economies, it is plagued by corruption, ranking 107th out of 180 on the Transparency International index. Quang, a former internal security chief, earlier claimed numerous high-profile scalps including some senior state enterprise and Communist Party officials. A recent investigation into two top police officers for spying suggests that the campaign is now shifting its focus away from sectors such as energy and banking, and to more sensitive areas such as the security services.


Battery low: Laos has been dubbed the "Battery of Asia" because of its ambitions to develop its ample hydropower resources. But the failure of a dam in Attapeu in July, resulting in dozens of fatalities, caused authorities to put all new dam projects on hold and inspect ongoing ones. The country had 46 operating hydroelectric plants in 2017, with 54 more planned or under construction, and electricity sales abroad make up 30% of its exports. But Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith takes issue with the "battery" tag. "Our capacity to develop electricity in Laos compared to the demand of neighbouring countries is very limited," he said in September.

Five billion cubic metres of water escaped when an auxiliary dam of the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy project under construction in Sanamxay district of Attapeu collapsed in late July, killing dozens. Thailand's Ratchaburi Electricity Generating Holding Plc, one of the partners on the project, attributed the collapse to unusually heavy rains. The last official tally released in September said 40 people were confirmed dead, at least 98 were missing and 6,600 others were displaced.


TPP 2.0: Brunei is one of 11 countries that signed a slimmed-down version of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement in March 2018 in Santiago, Chile. The United States, which championed the idea when Barack Obama was president, is no longer in the club, thanks to Donald Trump. But the smaller deal with the longer name -- the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) -- is still significant, covering 13.5% of global GDP. The figure would have been 40% if the US was still involved. Other members are Australia, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.


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