Asia has no shortage of challenges as it heads into 2019. The region must react to an ever deepening US-China rivalry, and learn to adjust to new technologies and social pressures. It also faces four crucial elections, and two long-standing security threats.
Here are nine issues and news events to watch in the year to come.
1. FOUR ELECTIONS: First, Thailand holds a general election on Feb 24, marking the first time the ruling junta will face voters since seizing power in a military coup in 2014. Prayuth Chan-ocha, the former general and current prime minister, is leading most polls ahead of Sudarat Keyuraphan, a close ally of deposed leader Thaksin Shinawatra. Concern is mounting over a repeat of the street clashes that marred the 2014 vote.
On April 17, Indonesia’s presidential election is a rematch between President Joko Widodo and rival Prabowo Subianto. Jokowi is ahead in the polls, and his running mate Ma’ruf Amin, a Muslim cleric, has boosted his religious credentials. Expect religion and the falling rupiah to be key factors as this race heats up.
India will hold a general election that must be completed by mid-May. The Bharatiya Janata Party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s has been stung by recent losses, and Modi has done little to improve India’s relations with either China or Pakistan. Watch for a resurgent Congress Party led by Rahul Gandhi – a political scion from a long line of Indian prime ministers.
Finally, Australia will hold a federal election by May 18 to begin selecting a new parliament. Many expect the vote to be another blow to the Liberal Party, which has been hurt by infighting and suffered sharp losses in recent by-elections.
DATE TO WATCH: May 13, the general election in the Philippines to choose half the 24-seat Senate, the entire House of Representatives and 18,000 local positions. This midterm poll will be a powerful sign of what Filipinos think about the PDP – Laban party and its leader, President Rodrigo Duterte.
2. US-CHINA TRADE WAR: Asia will bear the brunt of the trade war. The question is: how bad will it get?
The 90-day trade truce between the US and China expires at the end of February. If negotiations fail, the US plans to increase tariffs on US$200 billion worth of Chinese products – another blow to the Asian partners that add value to China’s exports.
As China’s exports decline, its imports from Asia will also drop. In terms of GDP, according to economist Aiden Yao, the most exposed country will be Singapore, followed by Taiwan, Malaysia, South Korea and Vietnam.
It’s not all bad news. Yao said that China’s competitors in the US market, such as Japan and South Korea, may see gains in market share. A prolonged trade war could also bring a wave of industrial investment to Southeast Asia, notably in Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam
How China reacts to the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which was enacted on December 30, will be another crucial development.
China was cut out of the original deal, the failed Trans-Pacific Partnership, by the US. Now, Beijing may consider joining the 11-nation free trade deal as a hedge against President Donald Trump’s protectionist “America first” strategy.
Japan’s response to Trump’s tariffs is worth watching in 2019. Instead of blocking US goods, Tokyo is signing market-opening deals – like with the 28-nation European Union – and excluding the US in favour of its competitors. In February, the US will rule on whether auto imports can be a national security threat, which would let the US slap higher tariffs on Asian cars.
KEY DATES: June 28-29, Japan will host its first-ever G20 Summit in Osaka.
3. ANNIVERSARIES IN CHINA: Global outcry over China’s treatment of Muslims in Xinjiang appears set to continue in 2019, and looks to become a politicised issue in Indonesia, Pakistan and other Asian nations.
For Beijing, the signature event of the year will be the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China in October. The Communist Party will surely point out that the former Soviet Union, the only other communist superpower, lasted only 69 years and ended in political and economic disarray.
Xinhua, the state news agency, put it this way: “The nation has grown rich – thanks to the reform and opening up which began four decades ago – and is on the track to becoming strong under the guidance of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.”
But there is another anniversary in China: It’s the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests, during which government troops opened fire on unarmed, pro-democracy protesters. China has never released a death toll, but estimates from human rights groups and witnesses range from several hundred to several thousand.
DATE TO WATCH: October 1, the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China
4. NORTH KOREA IMPASSE: There has only been stalemate since the June summit in Singapore between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, which seemed to defuse a global security threat. The question for 2019 is will they meet again?
Pyongyang has showed no signs of dismantling its missile programmes, and last week said it would not pursue denuclearisation until the US removed what it called a “nuclear threat.” Washington is annoyed with South Korea, according to reports, which it sees as moving too quickly to normalise ties with the North.
The abrupt resignation of James Mattis as defence secretary has also added uncertainty to the US alliance with Seoul and its ongoing talks with Pyongyang.
DATE TO WATCH: New Year’s Day, when Kim Jong-un gives an annual national address and often provides clues to policy shifts.
5. SOUTH CHINA SEA: Washington continues to criticise Beijing’s “militarisation” of the crucial sea lane, where China has overlapping claims with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and other countries.
“In addition to highlighting its new weapons systems and aircraft carrier, China will expand the size of its military exercises in the South China Sea and escalate its harassment of US Navy ships conducting freedom of navigation operations there,” said Carl O. Schuster, a retired US Navy Captain at Hawaii Pacific University.
“Japan and Taiwan will experience increasing Chinese military activities along their air defence identification zones and face politico-economic pressures over Beijing’s displeasure with their defence policies. The American and regional responses to those actions will shape the region’s media and strategic environment.”
KEY DATES: June 22-23, an Asean summit in Thailand may push forward a maritime code of conduct with China in the disputed waters.
Foldable smartphones are coming back, and this could be the first year of 5G networks too. In 2019, according to Digital Trends, every major carrier will have 5G programmes up and running. “Like the internet back in 1999,” the tech website wrote, “this will change everything.”
There are negative trends as well: the social media giants are under heavy fire over human rights and data privacy issues, cybersecurity remains a global threat and China’s increasing digital dominance is a concern for many.
DATE TO WATCH: April 30, when Japan’s Emperor Akihito hands over the throne to his eldest son a new era will need to be named. The Japanese tech sector is worried about a Y2K-style glitch – only worse.
7. MARIJUANA MOMENTUM: This week, Thailand became the first country in Southeast Asia to approve medical marijuana. A lawmaker even went on TV and called it a “New Year’s gift … to the government and the Thai people.”
Bangkok is expecting at least US$3 billion a year in revenue, according to reports. Other Asian nations might be close behind.
In November, South Korea passed a stricter law to legalise medical cannabis. Even Singapore, known for its drug laws, aims to develop medical treatments containing synthetic elements of marijuana.
Malaysia has begun informal cabinet discussions on legalising medical marijuana. Nepal, Bhutan and India may also be open to legalising medical cannabis, according to Transnational Institute, an Amsterdam think tank.
DATE TO WATCH: April 20, or 420, the unofficial day of celebrating marijuana culture.
Australia may already be suffering El Nino effects: Its weather agency has warned of heatwaves, “catastrophic fire conditions” and more drought for farmers. There is evidence that climate change is making El Nino conditions hotter and more severe.
Recycling, meanwhile, is a mess in Asia. China last year stopped accepting the world’s recyclables, leaving countries like Malaysia, Vietnam, and Thailand trying to a handle mountains of recyclable waste without the right infrastructure or regulations. This will be a pivotal year for the US$200-billion recycling industry.
The climate conversation may change in 2019. “We now need to consider what comes next. How will marginalised communities survive rapid and dramatic climatic shifts?” said Chandran Nair, founder of the Global Institute For tomorrow. “How will extreme temperatures affect food security, water supply and surety of shelter?”
DATE TO WATCH: September 23, the UN 2019 Climate Summit in New York. The slogan is “A race we can win.”
9. THE LGBT MOVEMENT: Asia looks set to continue a polarising debate over gay rights and same-sex marriage.
Landmark changes may lead other nations to follow. Thailand this week approved a bill legalising same-sex unions.
A few days earlier, Singapore allowed a gay couple to adopt their 5-year-old son conceived through a surrogate. Pride events are now held across the region.
And anger has escalated in Indonesia, where a wave of arrests, state-sanctioned discrimination and public hostility struck fear in the LGBT community. Activists now warn that the situation could deteriorate even further ahead of national elections in April.
DATE TO WATCH: Valentines Day in Japan. A group of same-sex couples will file coordinated lawsuits across the country to draw attention to what they feel is Japan’s reluctance to honour gay marriages.