It certainly has been an eventful year. Not only did 2020 usher in a world-stopping pandemic that has killed more than 1 million people globally and upended international travel, it also tested Asia geopolitically, with tensions in some areas reaching record highs while in others potentially game-changing trade pacts have been carved out. And that’s not to mention the events you might have missed. Here are 10 of our picks for the region’s most significant stories of the year. ASIA’S COVID-19 RESPONSE From Thailand to Taiwan , governments across Asia have responded to this year’s coronavirus pandemic in ways that were at once more effective and better organised than many of their Western counterparts. Vietnam , with its strict quarantine measures and extensive contact tracing, crushed its first wave of infections in April and went nearly 100 days without any local transmission. Taiwan went further, managing a record 200 days without any local cases and recording fewer than 1,000 infections in total, so far. In both places, economic activity has not suffered as much as it did in those areas that were forced into repeated, damaging lockdowns. Why is the West still not learning from Asia’s Covid-19 success? As the worst-hit country in the world, the United States ’ experience of the pandemic stands in stark contrast to Asia’s. Infections and hospitalisations both hit record highs in the country this December, as health authorities reported more than 200,000 new cases every day. Britain , too, saw a huge autumn spike in case numbers, with the government ushering in a second national lockdown in November as daily infections peaked around the 30,000 mark. Michael Baker, a professor of public health at the University of Otago in Wellington, said much of this disparity in experience stemmed from differences in approach. Asia-Pacific countries such as China and New Zealand have largely aimed to eliminate the virus by reducing community transmission to zero, resulting in lower mortality rates and a more rapid economic recovery. Most European and North American countries, however, have followed their influenza pandemic plans, which are aimed at mitigating or suppressing but not eliminating transmission, Baker said. “Consequently these countries have to live with Covid-19, which is proving costly in health and economic terms,” he added, noting that the arrival of vaccines would make the pandemic more manageable, and that the outlook for Asia was “relatively positive compared with much of the world”. SHINZO ABE RESIGNS The abrupt resignation in August of Japan ’s longest-serving prime minister due to health concerns sent shock waves throughout the nation and across the region. Shinzo Abe , who served four terms in office stretching back to 2006, did more to raise his country’s profile and international presence than perhaps any Japanese leader since World War II. Known for ushering in revolutionary economic policies that still bear his name, Abe also sought to revise constitutional constraints on the use of force by the country’s military. Japan PM Shinzo Abe resigns over health concerns, apologises He was replaced by his chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga , who has pledged to continue his predecessor’s policies, and Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party party is expected to win the 2021 election for Japan’s lower house, according to Toshiya Takahashi, an international relations professor from Shoin University. “The LDP may or may not reduce its seats in the lower house, but the LDP presidency will be intact,” said Takahashi, pointing to continued weak support for opposition parties and the public’s preference for stability amid the pandemic. “If the Suga administration provides sufficient support for those who suffer financially from Covid-19, the public support will continue to be high.” Even though Suga is seen as a leader lacking “grand vision” and accountability , Takahashi said the public would be willing to overlook this while other concerns such as rising infections needed to be tackled. CHINA-INDIA TENSIONS In mid-June, troops from India and China had a bloody confrontation in the Galwan Valley, high in the western Himalayas, which led to the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of their Chinese counterparts. The clash was one of the deadliest between the two sides at their disputed border in decades, and both would later blame the other for starting it. Despite calls for de-escalation, negotiations between the Chinese and Indian militaries failed to make much progress and tensions between the two countries began to spill over into their trading relationship, which is worth more than US$80 billion. China-India border dispute: are both sides breaking the deadlock? India retaliated by blocking more than 100 mobile apps created by Chinese companies, including the widely popular TikTok , and stepping up military cooperation with China’s rivals. It hosted a naval exercise in November that was attended by Japan, the US and Australia – the three other members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or “ Quad ”. In response, Beijing warned against “forming exclusive cliques” and the targeting of third parties. Efforts have reportedly been made in recent weeks to end the military stand-off by creating no-patrol zones and pulling back tanks and artillery, though there are concerns that New Delhi is more focused elsewhere. In a report published in November by the New Delhi-based Council for Strategic and Defence Research, Abhijit Singh, a senior fellow at the independent Observer Research Foundation think tank, wrote that many Indian analysts were advocating an aggressive strategy aimed at barring Chinese oil shipments, container vessels and bulk cargo traffic from traversing the Ten Degree Channel in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which many currently use to approach the Malacca Strait. KIM: ALIVE OR DEAD? North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was rumoured to be seriously ill or even dead in April, prompting international media headlines and investigations by intelligence agencies worldwide. The rumours began after a former lawmaker in South Korea , citing Chinese intelligence sources, said Kim had missed an event marking his grandfather’s birthday and was believed to be comatose. Other reports said the North Korean leader had failed to recover from a procedure he underwent for a cardiovascular problem caused by his obesity and excessive smoking. Speculation was stoked by news that his sister, Kim Yo-jong , had been given new official duties, including overseeing inter-Korean relations, but the rumours were put to rest several days later when Kim showed up in public seemingly in good health. Is Kim Jong-un ill? Reports shine light on North Korea’s rumour mill In November, South Korea’s National Intelligence Service said during a parliamentary briefing that Kim Yo-jong was “involved in governance across all levels” in the North, and was likely to be elevated to a full member of the Politburo at next year’s party congress. Donald Kirk, a veteran correspondent who has made multiple reporting trips to North Korea , said such an elevation would be a clear signal of Yo-jong’s rising authority, even though her brother was likely to remain the dominant figure in North Korean politics. “We should know more during and after the eighth party congress,” Kirk said, adding that while this might be postponed because of the pandemic, it should “convene in the near future”. MORE SUU KYI FOR MYANMAR Myanmar ’s ruling National League for Democracy in November claimed a resounding victory at the country’s second parliamentary elections since the end of military rule in 2011. The polls, which saw 5,643 candidates from 91 parties competing for 1,119 seats at both the state and federal level, was viewed as a referendum on Aung San Suu Kyi ’s fledgling democratic government. Myanmar’s ruling NLD wins absolute majority in election Not only did her party secure 396 of the 476 seats in the combined houses of the national parliament, it also displaced the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party from some of its strongholds in rural areas and southern Mandalay. This consolidation has been seen by the party and its supporters as a repudiation of the widespread international backlash against Myanmar’s handling of the Rohingya crisis , which has displaced almost 1 million people since 2017. Suu Kyi has been widely credited with bringing about the electoral victory, despite her government’s patchy record in speeding up economic development or moving forward with a peace and reconciliation process, according to V.S. Seshadri, a former Indian ambassador to Myanmar and the vice-chairman of the New Delhi-based policy research institute, the Research and Information System for Developing Countries. Her efforts defending Myanmar’s military against allegations of genocide at the International Court of Justice also won Suu Kyi popularity in the country, Seshadri said. “Likewise, she used the coronavirus crisis to her advantage during an election year. Her everyday media presence exhorting people to take precautionary measures reinforced the image of ‘Mother Suu’, as she is popularly regarded,” Seshadri wrote in The Indian Express newspaper. MALAYSIA’S GAME OF THRONES US President Donald Trump ’s White House was not the only place where politics in 2020 proved more absurd than anything a satirist could come up with. Malaysia , too, has been awash with intrigue and Game of Thrones -style machinations this year, which threw off almost all the pundits. It was supposed to be a landmark year for Malaysia, with two-time Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad – who returned to high office following the 2018 general elections – looking forward to taking centre stage when the country hosted this year’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation ( Apec ) forum. He was also set to hand the reins of power to his chosen successor, Anwar Ibrahim , at the end of the year. But a political coup in February and March by Muhyiddin Yassin , the current prime minister, and his fellow instigators put paid to all that. Censorship, sedition probes: is Malaysia ‘sliding down democracy scale’? Instead of ending his political career on a high, 95-year-old Mahathir is ending the year somewhat isolated, with few allies joining the new political party he set up after being ousted. And ties with his on-off ally Anwar, the current leader of the opposition, are once again in a deep freeze. So what of Muhyiddin, was he the winner of this whole saga? Not quite – he continues to struggle to govern with a razor-thin parliamentary majority and constant clamour from the powerful United Malays National Organisation ( Umno ) for more say in the way things are run. Arguably, the Malaysian political figure entering 2021 with the upper hand is Najib Razak , the corruption-tainted former leader who was ousted in 2018. In July, he was convicted in the first of five cases linking him to the 1MDB scandal , but a consensus remains that the sway he holds over Umno will ensure he wraps up the year as perhaps the most powerful politician in Malaysia. THAILAND’S PROTESTS The unprecedented protests in Thailand this year demanding reform of the country’s monarchy have astounded those of us observing events from afar. A certain amount of rough and tumble is to be expected in the country’s politics – where disputes almost inevitably end with military coups – but in modern times, there has never been anything quite like this type of open questioning of the royals’ place in society. The protests have been made all the more riveting by the fact that they are driven by students, who have adopted similar police-dodging tactics to those used in Hong Kong in 2019 . Thai protesters take aim at King Vajiralongkorn’s royal purse Whispers of a fresh coup have so far amounted to nothing, with the military seemingly content for now to observe from the sidelines. Instead what we have seen is a thick vein of debate and commentary surrounding Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn , including on topics once seen as taboo such as his love life , temperament, stewardship of royal assets and commitment to constitutional duties. We should expect this trend to continue well into 2021, though one wonders how the tale will end. Will protest leaders currently under investigation for lese majeste capitulate, and if so, will their protest movement die out? Or will the political quandary faced by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha ’s government further weaken business confidence at a time when it desperately needs foreign investments? Only time will tell, but 2020 has certainly been a blockbuster year even by the head-spinning standards of Thai politics. Though perhaps all we have witnessed so far is the prologue. SINGAPORE’S COVID-19 ELECTIONS Singaporean elections are normally fairly placid affairs, though most aren’t held in the middle of a major public health crisis and with economic growth screeching to a halt. For decades, the People’s Action Party (PAP) has all but been assured electoral triumph in the city state, and in times of crisis there has been an expectation it would have a stronger mandate. Alas, that did not happen in July’s vote . In the end, the opposition Workers’ Party took 10 of the 93 available seats . Which may not seem like much, but it represents the first time since the 1960s that the number of non-PAP MPs has been in the double digits. No blank cheque: 5 takeaways from Singapore’s 2020 election Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong acknowledged that the result was the consequence of citizens wanting more alternative voices to keep a check on the PAP, and he gave Workers’ Party chief Pritam Singh the formal designation of Leader of the Opposition – another landmark. Pundits meanwhile continue to ruminate over what the result means for the party with the third longest uninterrupted stint in power in Asia after China’s Communist Party and the Workers’ Party of North Korea. Of particular interest is when Lee intends to hand over power to his designated successor, Heng Swee Keat . Lee has said he will stay on until the coronavirus crisis is over, to ensure the next leader receives the country in good order. But following Heng’s somewhat shaky showing in July’s election, is he still the most likely candidate for next prime minister? The PAP resoundingly says yes, though not every pundit is convinced. All things considered, there was nothing placid about Singapore ’s politics in 2020. R.C.E.P. SIGNED, SEALED … DELIVERED IN 2021? The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership ( RCEP ) was thought up eight years ago as a way to amalgamate the various two-way trade pacts between the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations ( Asean ) and its six key trading partners. After 31 rounds of talks, 15 countries signed the pact in November, with India sitting out at the last minute after internal misgivings over whether it would reap the benefits of the deal. RCEP has been signed – but resistance to China could yet prove a hurdle Nonetheless, for trade negotiators and their respective governments, the signing ceremony must have come as a relief after all the time negotiations took. With the inclusion of China, Japan and South Korea, the pact is now the world’s biggest – though admittedly it is what is seen in expert circles as a “low-lying fruit” agreement. Extensive so-called flexibility provisions on implementation timelines have been baked into the deal, meaning participants may only feel its full effects years from now. It also does not significantly address rules for the e-commerce sector or environmental protection. Nor does it stipulate any mechanism for disputes between foreign firms and states, or what is otherwise known in trade parlance as investor-state dispute settlement. Still, the RCEP has been touted by Beijing and other governments as having immense symbolic ramifications amid the economic travails of the pandemic. Its signing will also put pressure on the US, which displayed a consistent protectionist stance during the Trump years, to rethink that position under incoming President Joe Biden . If Washington continues to stay on the sidelines of multilateral trade, it will soon cede more ground in Asia to China – which remains ever eager to boost trade with neighbours and reap the diplomatic dividends of such cooperation. Meanwhile, the RCEP is not completely stitched up, as member countries will have to go back to their respective legislatures to pass implementation laws. For some, this process may not be so straightforward. RED LINES IN THE SOUTH CHINA SEA Four years have passed since the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague found in favour of the Philippines in a landmark ruling on the South China Sea, which Beijing viewed with disdain . Though the court flatly rejected China’s extensive claims – marked on maps with a nine-dash line – to about 85 per cent of the disputed waterway , the ruling had until this year seldom been invoked by the Southeast Asian claimant states. But it has now become a central pillar of the so-called lawfare tactics that the claimants have employed this year to step up pressure on Beijing over the dispute. Malaysia rebukes Beijing as South China Sea ‘lawfare’ heats up The most obvious evidence of this were the series of diplomatic notes, called notes verbale, that Asean claimant states – and non-claimants the US and Australia – issued to the United Nations over the past nine months with regard to China’s nine-dash line assertions. More than 15 notes verbale, along with two diplomatic letters addressed to the UN secretary general – and a foreign ministry statement put out by Brunei – have been issued in a flurry of exchanges that were dubbed the “battle of the notes verbale”. All sides expect major progress to be made in 2021 in the ongoing negotiations between Asean and China for a code of conduct in the South China Sea. It’s possible the recent burst of “lawfare” will abate as those talks shift into a higher gear. Which stories mattered most to you in 2020? Find out with our Year In Review 2020 retrospective.