The US intervention in Afghanistan – the “graveyard of empires” – was doomed from the start by hubris and denial. Still, a bright spot of the past 20 years was the significant improvement in opportunities
for the country’s women and girls.
A record number of Afghan girls went to school. Women ascended in public life, taking on roles as ambassadors, parliamentarians and civil society leaders. The “Afghan Dreamers” – an all-female, high school robotics team – won acclaim internationally.
Now, under a back-in-power Taliban, the worst may yet be to come for women and girls
in the country as the world looks away.
Bad year: Aung San Suu Kyi
The one-time de facto leader of Myanmar
, Aung San Suu Kyi found herself, at the end of 2021, back where she has spent so many years – under detention
by a military government.
After a military coup, the Nobel laureate was detained, tried and found guilty on charges of incitement and breaking Covid-19 rules. Stalled democratic reforms and the persecution
of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority, which she did little to stop, had already dimmed Suu Kyi’s prospects of instituting lasting change in her country.
She is not alone in this regard; the pandemic has provided added cover for other governments in Asia to restrict civil liberties and clamp down
With her future now looking very much like her past, Suu Kyi offers a case study of just how difficult it is for democracy
to take root not only in Myanmar, but across Southeast Asia in countries both large and small.
Mixed year: Olympic movement in Asia
As the cheer of the Tokyo Summer Olympics gives way to the hurdles facing the Beijing Winter Games before they even begin, the Olympic Council of Asia has had a decidedly mixed year.
Despite concerns over budgets and Covid-19, the delayed Tokyo 2020 Olympics
provided a much needed distraction from the pandemic. Host nation Japan was well represented by its athletes who won the third-highest number of gold medals, after the US and China.
In the countdown to the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, however, the US, UK, Australia and Canada have all announced a diplomatic boycott
of the Games over China’s treatment of its Uygur minority and other human rights concerns.
If that were not enough, a now-vanished social media post by Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai
that appeared to allege sexual misconduct by a former Communist Party leader had people posting #WhereIsPengShuai? and raised the prospect of more protests.
These developments have left many questioning whether the International Olympic Committee can still live up to its charter of “promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity”.
Good year: Southeast Asia’s fintech sector
Amid the gloom and doom of 2021, Southeast Asia’s fintech
firms benefited from changing consumer habits and growing investor interest. Lockdowns throughout the region forced many indoors and increasingly online, accelerating a trend that was gaining steam before the pandemic hit.
In the first nine months of 2021, a record 80 fintech deals worth US$3 billion were done in Southeast Asia, exceeding investments for 2019 and 2020 combined.
One one-time unicorn that has integrated itself into the lives of Southeast Asia’s citizens is Grab, which evolved from a ride-hailing service to a “ super-app
” that offers financial services, deliveries and much more. In the largest SPAC merger and public listing deal of its kind, Grab went public at a nearly US$40 billion valuation in December.
Southeast Asia’s fintech players are also benefiting from venture capital shifting away from China as Beijing puts the brakes on the sector’s development.
Best year: Cold War rhetoric in Asia
Hard-pressed to find anyone who had a great 2021, we give the dubious distinction of “best year” to Asia’s new Cold War warriors.
of US President Joe Biden
proved to be no panacea for troubled superpower relations as President Xi Jinping stayed at home, and Chinese nationalists and state-owned media sought to push back
against leaders from Australia, Canada and other nations whose views and values clashed with those of China.
Social media amplified the nationalistic rhetoric of China’s “ wolf warrior
” diplomats in 2021, while an army of bots and trolls made matters worse. The spread of Covid-19, China’s rapid military build-up, militarisation of the South China Sea and crackdowns in Hong Kong and China’s Xinjiang
region, as well as threats to Taiwan, all heightened tensions.
Is the US in a cold war with China? The answer could be “yes”, “no” or “maybe” depending on the day of the week. The answer not only has deep implications for China and the US, but for all of Asia and the world as nations navigate the US-China relationship
and look to a better 2022.
Curtis S. Chin, a former US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC. Jose B. Collazo is a Southeast Asia analyst and project consultant at RiverPeak Group. Twitter: @curtisschin and @josebcollazo