After a particularly eventful 2016, it’s no surprise that many people are eager to usher in a new year. Unfortunately – and fortunately – world developments do not respect the Gregorian calendar, and many of last year’s stories will follow us into 2017.
To discuss some unresolved stories in Asia we’ll continue to see unfold this year, Humanosphere talked to Scott Valentine, associate professor of environmental and energy policy at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. Previously, he also taught at universities in Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan and Thailand and has provided leadership training to senior officials of the Indonesian foreign service, Singapore’s ministry of home affairs, the UAE’s foreign service and Thailand’s ministry of transport.
Valentine noted two recurring themes within most of these stories: China’s response to emerging problems and “the Trump fallout.”
“China’s modus operandi up until this stage has been if it doesn’t get its way, it pounds its fists on the table and shouts and screams and threatens to walk away,” Valentine said. “With Trump coming into the United States, he’s exactly the same way. So now we’ve got two truculent children sitting across the table from each other. It’ll be interesting to see how China manages its relations with the region, because there are so many issues here that can frankly go south so quickly.”
With that backdrop in mind, here are six major stories in Asia to watch in 2017:
1. Disruption of trade
The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is dead, and Trump’s promise to withdraw the U.S. from the trade pact with Southeast Asia creates an opening for China to fill the void and exert its influence. But Trump has also promised to impose heavy trade tariffs on China in an effort to secure manufacturing jobs at home.
“Is he going to follow through on his campaign threats to levy punishing tariffs on China? This is going to have a major impact on how the Chinese economy develops, how China responds to the United States, how other nations respond to the vacuum that would be occurring as a result of the sudden trade disruption,” Valentine said.
2. Pollution and clean-energy endeavors
Even before Trump was elected, climate change collaboration was on rocky terms. Now, the U.S. has elected to its highest office a man who has said that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese government.
“If he pulls the U.S. out of climate change mitigation efforts, I think you’ll see this start to fall apart globally,” Valentine said. “That’s not to say that all nations will suddenly stop contributing, but it will significantly slow down the process. This is not something we can afford. We need to expedite progress.”
However, China has since said it will keep up its end of the Paris Agreement even if the U.S. withdraws. That may be due in large part to fatal pollution, including the smog “airpocalypse” that has been plaguing northern China since before the holidays.
The government estimates that 650,000 people die prematurely from air pollution annually. Other studies put that figure closer to 1.6 million. Besides being a health burden, air pollution is also jeopardizing tourism and foreign investments.
“So there’s a utilitarian reason why China wishes to get itself off of coal-fired power,” Valentine said. “The question is to what extent can they do that also keep control of their economic costs?”
The cost of green energy is on a sharp downward trajectory, and Valentine said China is a the leading source of most forms globally: No. 1 in wind, solar and solar thermal; No. 3 in hydro. Wind energy is now one of the cheapest forms of energy, and solar PV costs are rapidly falling as well, thanks to China’s overcapacity. Economically, renewable energy makes sense – if the infrastructure is in place.
“I did a study on electricity investment in China, and one thing that really stood out was that China, as opposed to other nations, has emphasized investment in generation capacity – meaning that they’ve been building more power plants – but they’ve been underinvesting in energy infrastructure – the grid itself,” Valentine said.
With most of China’s renewable sources in the north, far from its demand centers along the east coast, it’s been faster and cheaper to “plunk down a coal-fired power plant” next to its factories in order to maintain the country’s competitive edge. These are the kinds of economic policies responsible for smog episodes like the ongoing one.
“China’s investing very heavily in infrastructure, and this will get sorted out over time – I have no doubt about it,” Valentine said. “But we have this problem: They’re going to probably need to invest trillions of dollars in this infrastructure over the next twenty years or so. If that’s the case, how strong is the economy going to be? The answer to that depends a lot on what Trump’s going to do in terms of his threats to assign tariffs to Chinese goods. So, we’re back in this vicious circle.”
China’s not alone in its environmental woes. In Southeast Asia, slash-and-burn techniques to replant palm oil plantations plague Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia annually with haze. India, too, has a serious air pollution problem similar to China’s. South Asia, in particular, is feeling the effects of climate change in the form of extreme weather events.
“It alters monsoon cycles, it exacerbates droughts, it has resulted in glacial melt in mountainous areas and that’s adversely impacted water supply in South Asia, India in particular,” Valentine said.
Horrific storms this year, magnified by climate change, immediately halted and even undid economic progress.
“If they can’t get control of [population growth], with the amount of industrial development that’s incurring there, we’re in for some woe,” Valentine said. “I don’t see how the carrying capacity of South Asia can continue to allow economic development to occur to the extent that it has without seeing some significant environmental calamities occurring.”
3. Territorial disputes in the South China Sea
Over the summer, the Philippines took China to the International Criminal Court to settle a territorial dispute in the South China Sea. The Hague Tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippines, and China immediately dismissed the verdict.
“Is China going to continue to ignore decisions made in courts of international law and insist on their way? And if they do, how is that going to impact relations with other countries in the region?” Valentine asked.
In a strange turn of events, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has since distanced himself from the U.S., a long-time ally, and cozied up to China, even saying he’s willing to “set aside” the ruling so as not to “impose” on China. Unfortunately for China, the Philippines aren’t the only ones putting up a fight for territory.
4. Growing civil dissent
“I was a professor in Hong Kong during the Umbrella Movement, and I can say categorically that that problem has not gone away fully yet,” Valentine said.
Last year saw a resurgence of the pro-democracy sentiments espoused by Hong Kong’s youth-led Umbrella Movement protests of 2014. Two young legislators were voted into office and promptly disqualified by court, after the pair inserted language derogatory to China into their oaths of office.
When the British returned Hong Kong to China in 1997, China agreed to a “one country, two systems” policy under which Hong Kong could retain its economic and political autonomy.
“There’s still a significant amount of animosity in Hong Kong over the manner in which Beijing has interfered both with politics and governance,” Valentine said. “I wouldn’t be surprised somewhere down the road to see a second round of protests, and it will remain to be seen how these are handled by the Chinese government.”
Dissent is brewing within China as well over land rights, human rights, environmental issues, and so on. Although the government has effectively prevented groups of protestors with similar interests from gathering for now, Valentine warns that in the age of internet and Weibo (Chinese social media), suppression will only become harder.
“As people start to become more affluent, they start looking for more to life,” he said. “That’s when things like freedoms, liberties, quality of our environments, quality of education, certainty over food security – these things start to become really important. If the Chinese government can’t deliver on all of these fronts, it engenders a degree of dissent, and when you’ve got this kind of dissent you’ve got the possibility of wide-scale civil protest. After a while, you can’t hold them all back.”
Protests continued to wrack South Asia last year as well, and they’re emerging in Southeast Asia, where people are upset about the course of economic development. Still, “China’s the big elephant in the room,” according to Valentine.
5. Terrorism in Southeast Asia
Though geographically far from the Middle East conflicts, fear is mounting in Southeast Asia of Islamic State (IS) undermining the region’s security. IS claimed responsibility for attacks on Jakarta, the Philippines and, for the first time, Malaysia last year. Thailand also suffered a string of bombings. Singapore thankfully foiled the plot before it could unfold.
“We are worried about terrorism, ” Valentine said. “So far, terrorist activities have been responded to fairly quickly in Thailand, Malaysia, here [in Singapore]and Indonesia. But again the question is with Trump in power, if he invokes some of his policies that are aimed directly at curtailing Muslim migration to the United States, what’s that going to do? Is that going to impact the evolution of terrorism in the world?”
6. The arming up of North Korea
On New Year’s day, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un announced in a televised speech that the country has “reached the final stage in preparations to test-launch an intercontinental ballistic rocket.” International concerns about North Korea’s arms capabilities grew immensely last year as the isolated nation conducted multiple nuclear tests and more than 20 ballistic missile launches, according to the New York Times.
“Say one of these missile launches they keep spitting into the Japan Sea accidentally overshoots its mark and winds up in a village on the west coast of Japan,” Valentine said. “What is Japan’s response going to be? If they move into North Korea with some sort of retaliatory strike, then China is in this really difficult position of trying to decide how it should it respond. Should it support North Korea – which I think it realizes can be a disruptive influence in the region – or does it stay out of it?”
A similarly messy dilemma could unfold in the Senkaku or Diaoyu Islands, the subject of a territory dispute between China, Japan and Taiwan.
“All it really takes is one mishap for things to escalate. The region is a bit of powder keg right now. The politics in the United States further unsettles this and leads us to some real major concerns for 2017,” Valentine said. “I don’t see 2017 being a rosy year for Asia at all.”