With continuing disputes in the South China Sea, a leadership transition on the cards in Malaysia and no end in sight for the Hong Kong protests, there’s plenty to watch out for this year reports SCMP.com
1. A CROSS-STRAIT CONUNDRUM
Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen recently came out on top in the election, which is likely to impact cross-strait relations for years to come. Her stance against closer ties to the mainland has helped her campaign, as has her support for Hong Kong’s anti-government protests – both of which will antagonise Beijing further in 2020 should she remain in power.
2. NORTH KOREA’S NUCLEAR WARNING
More than a year on from Kim Jong-un’s much-lauded summit with US President Donald Trump, the two sides have made no measurable progress toward denuclearisation, and 2020 opened with vows from the North Korean leader to expand Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal. The North’s weak economy and uncertainty about whether Trump will stay in office could keep Kim talking tough in the run-up to the American elections.
3. DOES THE RCEP NEED INDIA?
Talks over what might be the world’s largest trade deal were put on ice in 2019 when Japan balked over signing a pact that did not include India, but the remaining 15 countries plan to sign the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership agreement this year. The China-backed agreement could potentially lower barriers for more than 30 per cent of global trade.
4. SOUTHEAST ASIA’S 5G ROLL-OUT
Countries across Southeast Asia plan to roll out 5G networks this year, using technology from Chinese telecoms giant Huawei – despite US warnings about security issues. This will bring high-speed data processing to millions of internet users in Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam and beyond. Huawei has already spent billions on trials in Thailand and the Philippines. Both countries are American allies.
5. SINGAPORE ELECTIONS: 4G IN THE LIMELIGHT
The ruling People’s Action Party, which has held power for six decades, is seeking re-election for the 15th consecutive time. Deputy prime minister Heng Swee Keat, first among equals in the fourth-generation leadership dubbed the 4G team, is expected to succeed Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong some time after the general election.
6. WHAT’S NEXT FOR HONG KONG?
An estimated 1 million Hongkongers kicked off the new year with a mass protest that quickly descended into violent clashes with police, setting the tone for 2020 as the unrest looks set to continue with no resolution in sight. Elections for its Legislative Council will be held in September, and the first US Congress-mandated report on Hong Kong’s human rights and democracy that could potentially lead to sanctions on the city is due this year.
7. ASEAN AND SOUTH CHINA SEA TENSIONS
Vietnam’s turn as chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) this year comes amid heightened tensions over Chinese naval activity in the South China Sea. The bloc is working to develop a long-stalled code of conduct for the disputed waterway, where Beijing last year had stand-offs with Hanoi, Kuala Lumpur and Manila. Indonesia kicked off the new year by rejecting China’s claims over a part of the South China Sea.
8 MAHATHIR’S LEGACY
Malaysia is hosting the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) meetings this year, with the legacy of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad under scrutiny. He will become the first leader to host the summit twice, after first doing so in 1998. Mahathir will be 95 in 2020, and is expected to hand over power to democracy icon Anwar Ibrahim only after the Apec event in November.
Mahathir hits foreign policy speed bump after controversial Kuala Lumpur Summit
9. SRI LANKA AND THE INDIAN OCEAN
Newly elected President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has downplayed his administration’s ties with China, despite speculation he would embrace the pro-Beijing policies of his predecessors. Rajapaksa’s administration could raise a fresh challenge to the deal which saw the controversial lease of Hambantota port to Beijing. Neighbouring India is also gearing up for contests in the Indian Ocean, and this year’s flagship multilateral naval exercise Milan is set to be the biggest ever with 41 countries taking part.
10. UNCERTAINTY IN THAILAND
The delayed formation of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s cabinet saw the later-than-expected reveal of the country’s 2020 budget, bringing public trust to its lowest point in years. Opacity over the government’s direction and a fraught election process last year saw public protests, with more dissatisfaction expected this year as Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy faces slowing GDP growth.
11. XI JINPING VISITS JAPAN
The Chinese president plans to make his first state visit to Japan in April following years of lingering mistrust over the disputed Diaoyu Islands, known in Japan as the Senkaku Islands. The bilateral relationship has improved since a low point in 2012 when Japan nationalised the islands. Xi’s trip follows Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s second visit to China in late December, where the two agreed to push ahead with the RCEP.
12. CHINA, CLIMATE CHANGE CHAMPION?
China reiterated its commitment to the Paris climate accords in 2019 as the United States became the first nation to quit the pact. Though China remains one of the world’s top emitters, Washington’s withdrawal has opened the door for Beijing to take the lead in shaping the global approach to climate change. With Australia’s climate policy encumbered by domestic concerns, Pacific Island nations could increasingly look to Beijing for support against what leaders have described as an existential threat.
13. HINDU NATIONALISM IN INDIA
In Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s second term in office, the rise of Hindu nationalism is increasingly at odds with India’s secular, pluralist constitution. The continuing lockdown and unrest in Kashmir after stripping the region of its special status and the nationwide protests against Modi’s plans to implement a national citizenship registry make it an uneasy start to 2020 for his administration.
14. WILL JOKOWI’S “KEEP YOUR ENEMIES CLOSE” STRATEGY WORK?
Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo welcomed former political opponent Prabowo Subianto as his first guest of 2020, having last year moved to smooth political divisions by appointing Prabowo as his defence minister. Proposed reforms to the country’s criminal code saw thousands take to the streets in protests in late 2019, raising questions about Widodo’s policy direction during his second term in office.
15. TOKYO HOSTS THE OLYMPICS
Tokyo in 1964 was the first city in Asia to host the Olympics, and aims to make this summer’s games – which could be attended by as many as 10 million people – the most environmentally sustainable in history. The Olympic Village will run off hydrogen generated in disaster-hit Fukushima. Russia is banned from the Games over doping allegations, though athletes can compete as individuals.
16. AUSTRALIA’S BURNING ISSUE
Australia’s bush fire crisis shows no signs of abating, with 5 million hectares burned so far and the fires set to rage well into April. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has refused to strengthen the country’s climate change policies – will the international and domestic outcry and outrage change his position?
17. MYANMAR AND SOUTH KOREA VOTE
Myanmar is expected to hold a nationwide vote in November, which could contest the single-party majority of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy. The new members of parliament will choose the next president. Meanwhile, South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s Democratic Party will seek to retain control of the National Assembly in the country’s April elections.
18. US-CHINA TRADE WAR GAINS AND LOSSES
Thailand, Malaysia, Bangladesh, and the Philippines saw a modest economic boost from the trade war between the US and China, according to preliminary reports, but Vietnam led the pack, seeing its exports to the US jump. As growth in Southeast Asia could be dampened by a global economic slowdown, experts question whether the region will be able to sustain the gains. Meanwhile, East Asia’s export-driven economies in South Korea, Taiwan and Japan took a hit as their China-bound exports fell.
19. MANILA’S WAR ON DRUGS AND GAMING
In 2016, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said it would take six months to end the country’s controversial war on drugs. Four years on, police say the fight has cost over 6,600 people their lives. Manila has another fight on its hands in the new year, as it is looking to increase its collaboration with Chinese law enforcement to crack down on online gaming.
20. CHANGING TIDES IN THE PACIFIC
The Solomon Islands and Kiribati last year embraced official ties with Beijing as well as infrastructure investment under the Belt and Road Initiative, raising alarms in Washington and Canberra about China’s growing clout in the Pacific. The diplomatic relations of nations in the region will continue to be in focus as the US lobbies leaders of Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic allies not to switch recognition to Beijing, while the US and Australia have ramped up aid and infrastructure investment offers in the region.