TRADE WAR FALLOUT IN SOUTHEAST ASIA The US-China trade war spilled over into Asia, rearranging supply chains and relocating shipping routes. Asian economies home to low-cost manufacturing hubs – such as Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia – benefited as firms sought to move production or whole supply chains out of China amid the rising cost of doing business during the trade war. Washington turned its attention to countries that have been used by Chinese firms as pit stops to avoid tariffs, cracking down on the long-standing practice of false-origin labelling transshipment. Haven can wait: how Southeast Asia ultimately benefits from Trump’s trade crusade Experts say this focus could ultimately help Southeast Asian economies benefit from sustained growth by encouraging firms to relocate in more than name. The combination of supply chain relocation generated in the wake of the trade tensions and the crackdown on tariff-evading measures is forecast to help deepen manufacturing capacity in Vietnam , Malaysia and Taiwan, among others. Vietnam’s exports to the US jumped nearly 40 per cent from the year before, surging past US$25 billion in the first half of the year. However, experts warned that these gains from the trade war could be tempered by a future influx of imports from China – especially in hi-tech industries. SINGAPORE’S CRACKDOWN ON FAKE NEWS Singapore’s government in May passed a law to bolster the Lion City’s ironhanded approach to dealing with online misinformation , despite criticism at home and abroad from free-speech supporters. The law stepped up the government’s existing power to compel outlets to display disclaimers about falsehoods and allows the government to squeeze outlets financially for repeat offences. Singapore’s fake news law: protecting the truth, or restricting free debate? The law has been invoked four times since it took effect in October, targeting political opposition and giving rise to concerns that it will be used to ensnare political critics ahead of a general election. US-CHINA TECH WAR SPILLS INTO ASIA Washington’s tech war with Beijing came to the rest of the continent as the United States pressed its partners to follow its lead in blacklisting Chinese telecommunications firms over national security and espionage concerns. In April, Japan allocated 5G spectrum to the country’s telcos while stipulating they implement cybersecurity measures that effectively barred them from using network equipment produced by Huawei Technologies and ZTE Corp. Elsewhere, US efforts to stem the spread of Chinese technology feared to contain hidden “back doors” had little traction. My way or the Huawei: how US ultimatum over China’s 5G giant fell flat in Southeast Asia South Korea, Washington’s other key ally in East Asia, became the first country to roll out 5G nationwide when it launched services in April using Huawei equipment including base stations and transmitters. Southeast Asia, which Huawei hopes will generate US$1.2 trillion in business opportunities over the next five years, welcomed the controversial Shenzhen-headquartered company with open arms . In June, the Philippines became the first Southeast Asian country with 5G after carrier Globe Telecom launched its service using Huawei technology. Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand all trialled 5G services with the Chinese firm throughout the year, leaving the door open to its involvement in their next-generation communications networks. NORTH KOREA’S DENUCLEARISATION LOSES MOMENTUM After rewriting the rules of diplomatic protocol in 2018 by becoming the first US president to meet the leader of North Korea, Donald Trump’s maverick bid to convince Pyongyang to relinquish its nuclear weapons made little headway this year. US efforts to keep the momentum going after Trump and Kim Jong-un’s first summit in Singapore fell apart when their second meeting in Hanoi collapsed in February without any deal on denuclearisation . Collapsed Trump-Kim talks a risk for North Korea with silver linings for China and Japan In December, following months of stalemate, the North conducted two unspecified tests at its Sohae launch site – prompting speculation that a new engine was being prepared for a future intercontinental ballistic missile test. After Pyongyang set an end-of-year deadline for Washington to propose a new denuclearisation deal or expect a “Christmas gift” , 2019 finished on a bleak note for prospects of North Korean denuclearisation. “Now we are on the cusp of returning in 2020 to the heightened tensions of 2017 because Pyongyang rejects substantive diplomacy and demands rewards for merely abstaining from provocations,” said Leif-Eric Easley, associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. PROTESTS IN ASIA Unrest in Hong Kong stemming from plans to allow the extradition of criminal suspects to mainland China reverberated throughout Asia in 2019. Tensions and mistrust flared between pro-democracy supporters of Hong Kong and pro-Beijing mainland Chinese at overseas universities including the University of Queensland, the University of Adelaide and the University of Auckland, sometimes leading to physical clashes. Hong Kong and mainland China students clash at rally at Australian university In August, supporters of the Hong Kong protests came to blows with pro-Beijing counterprotesters during a rally in Melbourne. In Sydney the same month, tensions flared between opposing groups of protesters during a pro-Beijing rally in the city centre. In India and Indonesia, anti-government protest movements took cues from the Hong Kong protesters in their use of social media and messaging apps to coordinate their movements and trade tips on dealing with tear gas and rubber bullets. In Singapore, authorities deported a Hong Kong YouTube star in November after he organised a talk to discuss the protests roiling his city, while in South Korea, college students saw parallels with their country’s struggle for democracy during the 1980s . CHANGING TIDES OF DIPLOMATIC ALLEGIANCE IN THE PACIFIC The diplomatic rivalry between China and Taiwan heated up in the Pacific, with Taiwan losing two of its remaining allies in the region as more Pacific Island nations endorsed Beijing’s policy that the two are part of one China. Long-time Taiwan ally Solomon Islands defected in September , seeing economic benefits in signing on to investment deals under Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. It was followed closely by Kiribati, leaving Taiwan recognised by just four nations in the Pacific: Nauru, Palau, Tuvalu and the Republic of the Marshall Islands . China’s ‘great friendship’ with Micronesia grows warmer, leaving US with strategic headache in Pacific The US ramped up efforts to strengthen its relationship with the three Pacific nations with which it maintains defence agreements known as the Compacts of Free Association, which give Washington exclusive military access to the waters of Palau, the Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia. Trump in May hosted the leaders of the three nations at the White House, and in August defence secretary Mike Pompeo said the agreements were being renegotiated, though no details have been forthcoming. President Xi rolled out the red carpet for Micronesia’s president David Panuelo during his visit to Beijing in December . Panuelo reportedly signed more than US$70 million in agreements to boost his country’s economic ties with China, and the battle to win the allegiance of Pacific nations rages on. AUSTRALIA-CHINA TENSIONS FLARE After ending a difficult 2018 with a diplomatic thaw, Australia-China relations quickly returned to a rocky footing this year. In January, Chinese authorities detained Australian author Yang Hengjun on suspicion of espionage , prompting Australian officials to strenuously deny that he had ever spied for Canberra. In August, Australian foreign minister Marise Payne issued a thinly veiled rebuke to the Chinese consul-general in Brisbane after the diplomat praised mainland Chinese students for “acts of patriotism” after they clashed with student activists for democracy in Hong Kong during a rally at the University of Queensland. Yang Hengjun isn’t the first time Australia’s interests collided with China. Can Canberra be tougher? Relations took another hit in November when would-be Chinese defector Wang Liqiang went public with explosive allegations of involvement in espionage and political meddling in Australia, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Beijing dismissed the claims of Wang , whose credibility has received a mixed assessment in Australia, as “absurd” and a ploy to gain residency overseas. In December, Chinese ambassador Cheng Jingye held a rare press conference in which he predicted that ties would improve in 2020 after a “mixed” year, while taking aim at Canberra’s criticism of Beijing over its treatment of Uygurs and its ongoing detention of Yang Hengun. FRICTION IN THE SOUTH CHINA SEA The major shipping route and source of untapped energy reserves continued to be a flashpoint between China and its Asian neighbours in 2019. Beijing and Hanoi engaged in a tense stand-off in the waters between June and November after a Chinese survey ship began patrolling in the vicinity of an oil exploration platform near the resource-rich Vanguard Bank. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte signalled a shift toward a tougher stance in his country’s long-standing maritime dispute with China after being accused of selling out Philippine interests the previous year by signing an agreement on joint oil and gas development with Beijing. ‘Any suggestion?’ Philippine president Duterte asks after Xi Jinping reaffirms South China Sea claims Ahead of his fifth meeting with Chinese President in Xi Jinping in August, the Philippine leader pledged to raise Beijing’s refusal to honour a 2016 international tribunal ruling that rejected Chinese claims to more than 80 per cent of the South China Sea. Beijing declined to reverse its stance, but the two leaders agreed not to let their conflicting positions get in the way of relations, Duterte’s spokesman said after their meeting. “Beijing has increasingly treated the South China Sea as a ‘Chinese lake’ subject to its ‘indisputable sovereignty,’” said Richard Bitzinger, a visiting Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. “As a result, the South China Sea has become, quite simply, a key defensive zone for the Chinese.” Tensions notwithstanding, the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and China moved a step closer to finalising a long-awaited code of conduct for the waters after completing the first reading of the text in July . The agreement, which is due to be finalised in 2021, would lay out rules of conduct in the disputed waters and processes for dispute resolution. INDIA DESCENDS INTO HINDU NATIONALISM In a first for constitutionally secular India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party in early December pushed a bill through parliament that included a citizenship provision based on religion – granting Indian citizenship to non-Muslim refugees from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. The provision was met with protests around the country, and has been challenged in the Supreme Court by two political parties on the basis that it clashes with India’s constitution. Modi’s surgical strike on Muslims puts India at war with itself The bill follows another major initiative of the Modi government which would require all 1.35 billion people in India to prove they belong on a National Register of Citizens. There are fears that the nationwide implementation of the bill could disenfranchise millions of Indian Muslims. Analysts warn that the resulting unrest could be especially disastrous in light of the economic slowdown the country is facing. India’s economic growth rate has declined for six consecutive quarters, the longest drop-off in 23 years. INCUMBENTS RE-ELECTED AS ASIA VOTES Australia’s Scott Morrison, Indonesia’s Joko Widodo, India’s Narendra Modi and Thailand’s Prayuth Chan-ocha all retained their positions of power as more than a billion voters went to the polls in Asia this year. Nearly 200 million voted in one day across Indonesia’s archipelago, where the election was plagued by allegations of fraud and misinformation . Widodo was re-elected with 55.5 per cent of the vote, and the subsequent claims of challenger Prabowo – later appointed as defence minister – that the vote was rigged were thrown out by the constitutional court . But Widodo’s second term got off to a rocky start when thousands took to the streets ahead of his inauguration in October to protest proposed reforms to the country’s criminal laws and anti-corruption agency. Pacific Islands talks ‘almost broke down’ over Australia’s tough line on climate change Narendra Modi retained the presidency after India’s six-week election process, which handed a bruising defeat to the Indian National Congress party. The military-backed Palang Pracharat Party eventually claimed victory in Thailand, seeing Prayuth Chan-ocha remain Prime Minister, while the Pheu Thai party, backed by the exiled Shinawatra clan, won the most seats in Parliament. Observers say the initial stand-off between the two parties and ensuing tumult in Prayuth’s cabinet made the path forward for his government even more opaque. Australia’s Scott Morrison also kept the prime ministership, but was met with criticism by neighbouring leaders over his government’s lacklustre climate-change commitment. Tensions over domestic policies have prevented Morrison’s government from putting much weight behind his government’s stated goal to prioritise aid and investments in the Pacific. The nation has also been roiled by fears of Chinese interference in domestic politics and in its higher education system , and faced catastrophic bush fires .