A year of turbulence in Asia proved fertile territory for our opinion writers, who sunk their teeth into everything from Donald Trump’s trade war with China to the transformation of Malaysian politics to the brinkmanship surrounding North Korea’s weapons programme. Alongside those major, ongoing political stories, there were other polarising developments, all tackled head-on by our columnists.
Here’s a selection of our opinion pieces, addressing the stories that shaped the region in 2018 – and may indeed echo throughout 2019 – as well as some others that simply stirred debate and got people talking.
Donald Trump campaigned to become US president by vowing to put “America First” and 2018 showed that an embrace of tariffs would be a centrepiece of fulfilling that promise. And China responded in kind. Our columnists were left to make sense of it all. Leslie Fong looked back at the opium wars to consider how Beijing might proceed. Cary Huang warned any dispute over trade threatened to boil over and inflame relations between the two countries more broadly. And, indeed, as the year drew to a close, he warned of further escalation ahead. Tom Holland cautioned against assuming the US will come out on top. Wang Xiangwei sounded a note of optimism, insisting the stand-off could help reform China’s economy and even suggested it could be a “blessing in disguise”.
A time of change in Singapore?
Leslie Fong took a historical tack in addressing the concentration of power in Singaporean politics, casting his eye back to the Renaissance for a provocative parallel. Fong tracked Venice’s rise to regional dominance by encouraging entrepreneurship but ensured its own decline by placing too much power in the hands of too few. Separately, Singapore’s Section 377A, which criminalises acts of homosexuality, has long been a flashpoint in the city state’s domestic politics. Ken Kwek drew contrasts with Hong Kong and Taiwan before concluding the public debate had done little to help minorities in Singapore – indeed, it may have made matters worse.
Is Australia really that racist?
This was the question posed by Hari Raj after Melbourne’s Herald-Sun newspaper published a polarising caricature of Serena Williams, who had herself divided opinion with her behaviour at the US Open. The newspaper defended its cartoon but many commentators were less forgiving, suggesting the image perpetuated outdated racial stereotypes of African Americans. Indeed, Australia’s concerns about Chinese influence also stirred debate: well-founded or an overreaction? Wang Xiangwei insisted Australia’s “cure was worse than the disease”.
A historic breakthrough on North Korea?
Just as polarising as the trade war was Trump’s outreach to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, culminating in a historic summit in Singapore in June. Less clear, though, was whether the meeting delivered any real results. Keith B. Richburg insisted the meeting made the world safer. On the other hand, Denny Roy pointed out that very little had changed. Sourabh Gupta argued Trump’s attempts to link his trade war with his North Korean outreach under one umbrella when dealing with China had doomed both policies to failure. Earlier in the year, Wang Xiangwei was impressed by Kim’s diplomatic skill.
In terms of the bigger picture, the foreign policy manoeuvring between Washington and Beijing kept our columnists exercised. That has plenty of dimensions aside from trade. Cary Huang considered the role of Taiwan, and whether we have already entered “a second cold war” or if there something even worse around the corner. Wang Xiangwei urged Beijing to reconsider the way it engages with the world and noted a change of tone in some of Beijing’s pronouncements. He even questioned whether Israel might offer a better example in the use of soft power abroad. Tom Holland looked ahead to the next Trump-Xi summit and concluded it is already doomed. Nonetheless, he saw the opportunity for China to emerge as Asia’s monetary power.
Separate challenges confront Pakistan and India
In Pakistan former cricketer Imran Khan cast himself as an outsider and was rewarded by being elected prime minister. Tom Hussain warned, though, that despite Khan’s unique backstory, Pakistan’s military will continue to hold sway. Across the border in India, Narendra Modi faces his own challenges. Tom Holland seized on setbacks in state elections and suggested economic pain was inevitable. Electoral politics aside, Dibyesh Anand outlined how the rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl exposed deep divisions.
Upheaval in Malaysia
Malaysian politics were transformed by May’s elections, which led to Najib Razak being replaced as prime minister by Mahathir Mohamad, returning to power in his 90s. Razak had been plagued by the 1MDB corruption scandal, prompting Phar Kim Beng to describe a leader isolated on the world stage. Mahathir’s dramatic victory notwithstanding, it wasn’t all smooth sailing for his new government. Karim Raslan, however, urged Malaysians to be patient. Wang Xiangwei noted Mahathir’s pushback against Chinese interests, and asked what it might mean for the Belt and Road Initiative. The theme of Belt and Road buyer’s remorse was echoed by Tom Holland.