The Asian agenda for 2016

In a year that will see Europe distracted by the war in Syria and the battle against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), while the United States enters an election year, 2016 gives Asia a chance to stand out and stand up for global peace and stability.

There were some encouraging signs in the last weeks of 2015 with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's surprise visit to Pakistan.

There was also a groundbreaking meeting between the leaders of China and Taiwan in Singapore.

In the year ahead it's important that greater efforts are made to prevent a destabilising confrontation between China and the US, and also address worrying signs that a new wave of Islamist violent extremism will be unleashed on the region.

On the diplomatic front, ASEAN leaders must continue to nudge China towards an agreed Code of Conduct on the South China Sea.

The baton passes to Laos as the ASEAN chair, but absent an active role by Thailand and Indonesia, it seems unlikely that Beijing will heed calls for an agreement to calm rising tensions.

Political transition in Myanmar will be closely watched. The new government led by Ms Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy will take shape in the early months of the year and be installed by April.

Most observers now expect the transition to be relatively smooth as Ms Suu Kyi seeks accommodation rather than confrontation with the still powerful army.

Her key challenge will be ensuring that economic reform proceeds apace and continues to attract foreign direct investment, which was something the outgoing Thein Sein government deserves some credit for.

The incoming government also needs to ensure that the nascent peace process, which aims to end more than six decades of civil war between the central government and an array of armed ethnic groups, is resumed and improved upon; sincerity and a commitment to genuine autonomy will be key.

In neighbouring Thailand, the military junta faces the twin challenges of maintaining economic confidence and public confidence in its declared road map towards elections and a return to democracy.

A fresh stab at framing a Constitution will be unveiled at the end of this month, and if it meets the approval of the generals, will proceed to a referendum, followed by elections next year.

There is a paucity of confidence in this process because the generals have already rejected one draft charter, and many expect them to buy more time in power by ensuring the road map is prolonged, not least because of concerns about the impending royal succession.

If only the Thai military would allow some space for a more inclusive debate on the future of the country, and a much-needed re-organisation of political parties, then a viable consensus could emerge on the way forward.

Thailand's unending political paralysis continues to cast a gloomy shadow on the wider region because of its centrality.

Efforts to shape a regional action plan on the movement of the Rohingya out of Rakhine state, which Thailand bravely tried to lead on, made no progress; deteriorating ties with the US seemed to push Thailand closer to China, upsetting the geopolitical equilibrium in South-east Asia.

Presidential elections in the Philippines in May will see a new administration assume office mid-year. The incoming president will need to urgently repair the peace process with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in Mindanao, which has languished and suffered much damage in the dying months of President Aquino's administration.

Failure to implement the peace agreement signed last March will have security implications farther afield in East Malaysia and Indonesia, as Mindanao is an attractive refuge and training ground for extremists.

Although much of the concern about ISIS has been focused on Europe, North Africa as well as Syria and Iraq, there are indications that ISIS has made headway in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as in remote regions of Indonesia and the southern Philippines.

The last few months of 2015 saw arrests of Indonesian and Malaysian suspects and the uncovering of recruitment activities in Mindanao and Sulu in the southern Philippines. Quite possibly, 2016 will see ISIS become more active in the region as it faces pressure in Syria and Iraq.

To help forestall another cycle of Islamist extremist violence, it is imperative that Indonesia and Malaysia in particular make strong efforts to prevent political forces from sowing religious hatred and intolerance in their diverse societies. In both countries, 2015 saw alarming signs of increased religious intolerance - in some cases leading to violence.

The key challenge across Asia will be for leaders to engage more constructively in dialogue to forge co-operation on the major issues that face the region.

The US will likely push for a stronger stance on China's claims in the South China Sea among ASEAN states at the mid-February US-ASEAN leaders meeting in California.

South-east Asia struggles to assert ASEAN centrality in this increasingly high-stakes game of geopolitical poker, as some ASEAN states are greatly concerned about China's assertiveness in the region, while others are reluctant to antagonise the Middle Kingdom.

The framework of multilateral co-operation in Asia is only as good as the confidence and vision of its leaders, who in the past year have been greatly distracted by transition and consolidation at home. In 2016 this must change, for the consequences of regional discord and inaction on critical issues of common concern don't bear thinking about.

The writer is Asia Regional Director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue based in Singapore.

This article was first published on January 7, 2016.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.