The view from Asia: Challenges in 2016

Asean's stance on South China Sea

Munir Majid, The Star

So, what difference does the Asean Community make?

The first thing to remember is that Asean does not displace the individual nation-state. Each member state has chosen not to subsume any part of its sovereignty to a larger Asean institution or entity.

Certainly, in respect of internal affairs, the principle of non-interference is sacrosanct. Therefore, it would be misplaced to expect Asean to make a direct difference in the solution of the many challenges its member states will face in 2016.

However, all these problems could become more numerous and complicated if there was no Asean.

It is also often contended that if there was no Asean, the level of non-regional foreign interference would be so great as to divide South-east Asian states, even set them against one another.

This point is salient when we consider the situation in the South China Sea, where four Asean claimants have territorial claims together with China (and Taiwan). How this is resolved is something that affects the whole region and not just those Asean members.

That is why the South China Sea disputes have become the touchstone of the contention that Asean keeps out interlopers who disturb, as well as keeps the region together. In 2016, the absolute minimum must be the conclusion of the binding code of conduct in the South China Sea.

However, if China continues with reclamation and other works while dragging its feet on the code of conduct, there has to be a Plan B in 2016 on the involvement of the United States in the disputes. That is a conversation some individual Asean states - like Singapore - have already had, but it has to be developed at the group level when Asean holds its summit with the Americans in California on Feb 15 and 16.

Asean now has a strategic partnership with the US. It has to work out in 2016 what this means. It has also, more immediately, to have that Plan B clearly in mind. Otherwise we can look forward to a messy US-China struggle and the end of stability in the region which the Asean Community is supposed to preserve.

Bigger security role for Japan

Editorial, The Yomiuri Shimbun

Japan's security environment is deteriorating as China has rapidly built up and modernised its military, while North Korea has been proceeding steadily with nuclear and ballistic missile development.

Japan has been criticised as "following in the footsteps of the United States".

With such a passive stance, Japan cannot maintain domestic or regional peace and prosperity. It must pursue pro-active diplomacy.

At his New Year's press conference, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe emphasised: "This will be a year in which Japan's diplomacy leads the world."

Japan chairs the meetings of the Group of Seven (G-7) this year. It has also returned to the UN Security Council as a non-permanent member.

At the meeting of the G-7 major nations, scheduled for late May, measures to deal with international terrorism will be high on the agenda.

Japan should take the lead in deciding on comprehensive measures, including how to counter terrorist propaganda.

Meanwhile, China has been intensifying its attempts to "change the status quo by force", such as conducting test flights on one of the man-made islands the country has built in the South China Sea.

Securing the safety of sea lanes is of common interest to the international community. The G-7 nations must join hands in pushing China to comply with international law.

The security-related legislation, passed into law in September, will come into force in March. Allowing Japan to exercise its right of collective self-defence will greatly enhance the effectiveness of the Japan-United States alliance through a synergy effect with the US' rebalancing policy on Asia.

Trilateral summit talks among Japan, China and South Korea will be held in our country this year.

Mr Abe intends to hold separate talks with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and South Korean President Park Geun Hye.

These talks should be made conducive to establishing future-oriented ties between Japan and China and between Japan and South Korea.

The overall direction of Japan-China relations is towards improvement. To ensure this trend takes root, it is important to continue bilateral dialogue.

At the same time, no efforts should be spared to be vigilant against government ships from China that may intrude into Japanese waters around the Senkaku Islands.

Livelihood, welfare worries in HK

Peter Liang, China Daily

With the government scheduled to lay down the blueprint for its policy for 2016 in the Chief Executive's speech at the Legislative Council later this month, it has been going out of its way to invite the public to say what they want from it.

Some of the strongest and best feedback it has got so far is reflected in the results of a recent study by the Chinese University of Hong Kong's Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies. Results of the telephone survey for the study show that the majority of respondents to one particular question said that livelihood and welfare should be the priority of the Chief Executive's policy speech.

In the previous year's survey, which was also conducted in December, the primary concern of the majority of respondents focused on the government's housing policy.

This shift of emphasis should come as no surprise at a time when the economy is showing definite signs of faltering, as reflected in falling prices of assets, including properties and stocks. The economic downturn, marked by falling exports and dwindling retail sales, has apparently increased public concerns about job security and various social issues that were glossed over in rosier times.

Those wishing for more welfare in 2016 should not keep their hopes too high. They should bear in mind that the recurrent revenue needed to finance welfare expenditure could be hit by the expected economic downturn.

Thai PM faces many problems

Suthichai Yoon, The Nation

Astrologers have done their bit. In order to get attention, they have resorted to extreme predictions.

But, you don't have to be a first-class astrologer or a rocket scientist to predict that things will get worse before they get better this year, whether you are talking about economics, politics or social issues.

Perhaps Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha had heard the negative forecasts before the end of the year. That's why he declared in his New Year's address - more or less his New Year resolution - that he will be a "good guy" in the new year.

What he meant was that he would talk less in public and would reduce the intensity and frequency of his verbal spats with reporters.

My own suspicion is that the premier was in fact pre-empting all the possible disasters that could befall his government in the new year by promising to build alliances rather than alienate people.

To say that 2016 will be a challenging year for him would be an understatement.

Some of the major issues that threaten to undermine his status come in the form of big questions such as: Will he make a major Cabinet reshuffle?

Will the draft Constitution being finalised open up new rifts between the powers-that-be and the various political parties? And if rammed through the Cabinet, will the charter be approved by the public in the upcoming referendum?

How will he react to whatever decisions are made by the judicial branch on charges against former premier Yingluck Shinawatra over the rice-pledging scheme, which has one way or the other been seen as a political issue pitting him against former premier Thaksin Shinawatra?

If these aren't headaches enough, there will be recurring problems that will spill over from last year: The International Civil Aviation Organisation's continuing probe into Thailand's air safety standards; the European Union's investigation into illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing activities, and the United States State Department's annual rating of Thailand's status on the question of human trafficking.

Gen Prayut will also have to closely monitor the prices of agricultural commodities, which have been depressed, pushing down Thai farmers' incomes and sparking widespread calls from around the country for government intervention.

Rupiah's survival in currency war

Frega F. Wenas, The Jakarta Post

Within the last decade, the currency war has transformed into a global trend and the rise of new major powers, like China, has challenged the hegemony of the United States.

This includes the competition to acquire financial dominance among the international community.

In recent years, China's yuan has been introduced in many countries as an alternative payment for both debt and investment.

Several African countries have elected to become China's strategic international partners. The latest is Zimbabwe, accepting an offer to terminate its foreign debt to China - a total amount of around US$40 million (S$57 million) - in exchange for accepting the yuan as one of its valid currencies.

This is demonstrative of the smart strategy, a soft power manoeuvre, adopted by the Chinese government. Should this same "international debt trade-off" scheme be offered to other countries, it is highly likely that China would achieve the same positive response.

If this trend continues, then it could indeed indicate the increasing dominance of the yuan in the international arena.

In the near future, the currency war, particularly the competition between the yuan and US dollar, is likely to become extremely harsh and unbearable. The primary concern for Indonesia is the survival of the rupiah.

As a country that has good relationships with both these two major powers, Indonesia also has to develop a smart strategy.

This article was first published on Jan 9, 2016.
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