A last look back at Asia this year
2022 could not have come fast enough. For many in Thailand and no doubt the rest of the world, new hope based on increased vaccination rates against Covid-19 was overwhelmed by the spread of the Omicron variant at year-end. Thailand’s travel and tourism sector continues to be particularly hard hit as entry and quarantine rules continue to change.
In a last farewell to 2021 and our annual look back at Asia’s winners and losers, we find even the good news was bad.
WORST YEAR: AFGHAN WOMEN
The chaotic US withdrawal in August brought to an end an era of advancements in Afghanistan, and hunger and misery are on the rise again in one of Asia’s poorest nations.
The US presence in Afghanistan — the “graveyard of empires” — was doomed in part by hubris and denial. But a bright spot of the last 20 years was the dramatic improvement in lives and opportunities for Afghanistan’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 in international competitions.
Now, under a back-in-power Taliban, the worst may still be to come for Afghan’s women and girls as the world looks away.
B YEAR: AUNG SAN SUU KYI
One-time de facto leader of Myanmar Aung San Suu Kyi found herself at year-end back where she has spent so many years — under detention by a military government — and takes the prize for “bad year” in Asia.
After a military coup in February, 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 the democracy icon’s prospects of instituting lasting change in her country.
With her future now looking much like her past, Ms Suu Kyi offers up a case study of just how difficult it is for democracy to take root and thrive not only in Myanmar, but for all of Southeast Asia.
MIXED YEAR: OLYMPICS IN ASIA
With the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics ultimately held in 2021 shining bright, and Beijing’s 2022 winter counterpart facing hurdles even before the games begin.
The delayed Tokyo Olympics provided a much needed distraction from the pandemic. Hmong American gold medalist gymnast Sunisa Lee dazzled the world. And athletes from host nation Japan won the third most gold medals, after athletes from the USA and China.
Now in the countdown to the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and Canada have announced a diplomatic boycott of the games over China’s treatment of its Uyghur minority and other human rights concerns. A now vanished social media post by Chinese star tennis player Peng Shuai that was interpreted as alleging sexual misconduct by a former Communist Party leader had many posting #WhereIsPengShuai? — and raising prospects of more protests to come.
GOOD YEAR: FINTECH IN SE ASIA
Amid the gloom and doom of 2021, Southeast Asia’s fintech firms benefited from changing consumer habits and growing investor interest.
In the first nine months of 2021, Southeast Asia saw a record 80 fintech deals worth US$3 billion (about 100 billion baht), exceeding what was invested in 2019 and 2020 combined and making it a very good year for the sector. 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 and reins in one-time high-flying success stories, including Alibaba Group’s affiliate company Ant Group and founder Jack Ma.
It now seems we will need to look also to Southeast Asia, rather than Northeast Asia, for digital trends that will shape our future.
BEST YEAR: ‘COLD WAR’ IN ASIA
Hard-pressed to find anyone having had a great 2021, we give the dubious distinction of “best year” in Asia to the region’s new Cold War warriors. This year sadly proved to be a banner year for a return to Cold War rhetoric.
The election of US President Joe Biden proved to be no panacea for troubled superpower relations as China’s President Xi Jinping stayed home, and Chinese nationalists and state-owned media including now “retired” Global Times editor-in-chief Hu Xijin sought to push back against leaders from Australia, Canada and other nations whose views and values clashed with those of China.
Social media in 2021 amplified the nationalistic rhetoric of China’s “wolf warrior” diplomats, and bots and trolls made matters worse. The spread of Covid-19, China’s rapid military buildup and development of hypersonic missiles, 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 United States 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 United States but for Thailand, Asean and the world as nations navigate the US-China relationship and look to a better 2022.