Asia Pacific's year, bad to good

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As we pass from Sheep to Monkey, Curtis Chin and Jose B. Collazo look at top stories of past 12 months.
Asia's pollution woes ranked as the worst issue faced by the region. Photo / Getty Images
Asia's pollution woes ranked as the worst issue faced by the region. Photo / Getty Images

As New Zealand and Australia once again welcome growing numbers of Chinese tourists for the Lunar New Year holidays, it's out with the Year of the Sheep and in with the Year of the Monkey today. But before the past year recedes into memory, we take a look back at the people and events that made headlines across Asia and the Pacific, for good and for bad.

Worst year: Asia's lungs. All too often across too many parts of Asia, starting the day has meant donning a facemask or suffering a hacking cough. New Zealand has been spared that fate so far.

The culprit is declining air quality as development has brought more factories and cars and increasing urbanisation. This is particularly true in some of the region's largest nations, China, India and Indonesia, but also in their neighbours. Pollution knows no boundaries.

India's "national health profile" reported nearly 3.5 million cases of acute respiratory infection in 2014. That's a 30 per cent increase since 2010.

The World Health Organisation says 13 of Earth's 20 most polluted cities are in India.

In China, Beijing issued its first-ever "red alert" smog days as the nation's notorious pollution returned with a vengeance this winter. Now banned in China, CCTV reporter Chai Jing's online documentary Under the Dome told of how her country's poor air quality contributed to the premature death of 500,000 people from cardiovascular and cardiorespiratory disease.

And in Southeast Asia, a "haze" from fires used to clear forest land in Indonesia for agriculture led to school and business closures. Thousands sought care for respiratory ailments and at least 19 deaths were reported as smoke darkened skies in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and even parts of Thailand and the Philippines.

The financial activities of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak earned him "bad year" status. Photo / AP
The financial activities of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak earned him "bad year" status. Photo / AP

Bad year: Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak - for taking Asian forbearance for granted. The latest development in an alleged corruption scandal from a nation that touts itself as "Truly Asia" has Malaysian Attorney General Apandi Ali declaring that Prime Minister Najib Razak has committed no criminal offence.

The declaration followed an investigation into how about US$700 million ($1.04 billion) showed up in Najib's personal bank accounts. Apandi has said the money was a donation from Saudi Arabia, and has since been returned.

All this followed the Wall Street Journal's reporting that the money was possibly linked to the financially troubled 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), the state-owned investment company founded in part by Najib to invest in property, infrastructure and energy projects.

Stay tuned for the next episode. Malaysia's antigraft agency has sought a review of the Attorney General's decision and investigations reportedly continue outside the country. Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad continues to call for his successor's departure.

Not-so-good-year: India's Narendra Modi and Indonesia's Joko "Jokowi" Widodo for believing their own hype a little too much.

Last year we gave Modi and Jokowi, along with China's Xi Jinping and Japan's Shinzo Abe, the award for best year in Asia. Modi and Jokowi were seen as pro-business and reform-minded with agendas that had the potential to kick their countries' economies into high gear.

What a difference a year makes. Entrenched economic interests and a "little bric" of bureaucracy, regulation, interventionism and corruption continue to impede the structural changes needed to attract more foreign direct investment and drive long-term job creation.

The struggling Chinese and Japanese economies, Jokowi's declining approval ratings and the defeat of Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party in two regional elections signal the honeymoon is over. Japan wrapped up the year by introducing negative interest rates. Meanwhile, China's currency and stock market interventions risk being seen as more about trust in market manipulation than market forces.

China's currency and stock market interventions risk being seen as more about trust in market manipulation than market forces.

Good year: The Trans-Pacific Partnership for putting some oomph into the United States pivot to Asia. Differences over "rule of origin" and pharmaceutical and diary products threatened to delay once again the conclusion of talks for the TPP, a major international trade pact. But on October 5 came news that negotiators had overcome all obstacles and reached agreement.

TPP signatories Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the US and Vietnam must each now ratify the deal. That is where the hard work truly begins. This is especially true in the United States where trade agreements don't fare well during an election year. That doesn't stop us from awarding the TPP the honour of "good year in Asia".

Best year: Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank - for shaking up the status quo.

When China first floated the idea of establishing a new development bank to help finance Asia's infrastructure, critics countered by asking whether it was necessary. Others feared a new China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) would become an extension of Chinese power and a further challenge to the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, led respectively by American and Japanese Presidents. The US and Japan raised questions about governance and project-lending "standards" at the AIIB.

But money talks. Britain was the first US ally to break ranks. Nearly 60 nations ultimately signed on as founding members of the new US$100 billion institution and the first projects are expected to be announced by April if not sooner.

Curtis S Chin, a former US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group. Jose B Collazo is a Southeast Asia analyst and an associate at RiverPeak Group.

- NZ Herald

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