The Top 10 Stories of 2010
Just another talk-fest we hear you say. True, the summit itself was marked by only very limited progress on its agenda. Even the issue given the most attention—an incipient currency war—was left largely unresolved. The days of G7-brokered deals like the Plaza Accord of 1985 appear to be behind us. But therein lays the significance. First, Seoul was the first non-G-8 venue to host a G-20 summit. Second, in the lead-up to the meeting, delegates agreed to reform the International Monetary Fund, shifting an admittedly modest 6 percent of voting shares to emerging economies. This, we believe, reflects one of the most important ongoing global trends in 2010, namely the rising pressure on the old and increasingly anachronistic postwar international institutions, as newly industrializing nations call for political clout to match their growing economic presence. Several of the most important of these emerging powers are in the Asia-Pacific. With Europe and the United States weakened by their own economic problems, look for this pressure to rise. Can the post-1945 system adapt and accommodate, or will we see the rise of new international institutions? A new world order, if you like.
What year-end Top 10 list would be complete without the WikiLeaks dump of US diplomatic cables. To date, the revelations have been as embarrassing to this region as elsewhere. See that country sitting by itself in the corner at the next regional summit? That’s Singapore, which has now managed to offend virtually every one of its neighbours. (Our favourite: Japan is a ‘big, fat loser.’) Elsewhere, the US ambassador called former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd ‘a control freak’ and a Chinese official talked about the irritations of beings friends with North Korea. Ultimately, the insults will be forgiven. Countries have to deal with one another. Of more lasting impact is the impression that in 2010 secrecy and privacy seemed to become endangered species. It was appropriate that Time chose Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg as its ‘Person of the Year.’ WikiLeaks, meanwhile, lost whatever pretensions it had to being a whistle blowing site when it elected to ‘dump’ 250,000 pages of cables simply because it had them. Embarrassing mid-level government officials who are clearly trying to do their jobs in good faith isn’t whistle blowing; it is anarchy, the preferred mode of government for the young, single, childless, and thoughtless. WikiLeaks supporters will argue that, no, it is transparency. But a world without confidences is a world of resumes and press releases, with truth the first casualty. Ironically, the tawdriest revelations to emerge from the whole affair involved WikiLeaks founder, Australian Julian Assange, who allegedly sought to parley his notoriety into some overly aggressive sexual conquests in Sweden. He at least had the option?long since exercised?of blaming his indiscretions on US government ‘dirty tricks.’ Meanwhile, look for the United States to respond with less openness, not more.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. In the 1990s, Thailand appeared to have made a stunningly successful switch to democracy, the preferred destination of sun-seeking holidaymakers and Japanese manufacturers, with a remarkably progressive constitution and a vibrant civil sector. Problems started with the 2001 election of Thaksin Shinawatra, who achieved wild popularity with Thailand’s poor with his populist programmes, while demonstrating a highly flexible interpretation of governance. After alienating the Thai elite, Thaksin was ousted in a military coup in 2006. The regime that replaced him promised democratic elections, but Thailand subsequently descended into a spiral of conflict, culminating in violent street protests by an opposition group called the Red Shirts, possibly backed by Thaksin. Thailand’s beloved monarch was unable or unwilling to intervene. Although the long-term consequences of the unrest remain unclear, the bloody scenes from the streets of Bangkok have clearly done profound damage to Thailand’s international image.
This really ought to have been India’s year. With China scaring virtually every sane government in the region, India has emerged as an appealing counterweight: a huge and growing economy and the largest democracy in the world. But Delhi struggled with its own problems this year, most notably a near catastrophe at the Commonwealth Games, one of the world’s biggest sporting events. Corruption, incompetence, collapsing bridges, and snakes everywhere...In the end, accumulated goodwill and the heroic efforts of local labourers saved the Games from disaster, but the contrast with the slick Beijing Olympics was telling, and it will be a while before India gets another chance at an international coming-out party. Still, geopolitical imperatives trump sporting events, and the parade of international leaders who put India on their itinerary this year—US President Barack Obama, Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy to name three—suggests that the subcontinent will have other opportunities to exercise regional clout.
Australians are traditionally cautious when it comes to replacing their prime ministers, unlike, say, Japan, whose leaders apparently work on a one-year contract. Between 1976 and 2009, Australia had just five PMs—Japan had 21. When Kevin Rudd was elected in a landslide in 2007, the trend looked set to continue. Rudd seemed to catch the zeitgeist, finally ratifying the Kyoto Protocol and delivering an overdue apology to the nation’s indigenous peoples. But soon word began to seep out of Canberra?whispered at first: Kevin was not playing well with others. For as long as Rudd remained popular with the electorate, his Labor Party caucus held its tongue, at least in public. But several missteps—a disastrous volte-face on climate change and a poorly planned super tax on miners—suddenly left him looking vulnerable. Party machine men pounced, and in a swift coup Rudd was out of a job, replaced by his deputy, Welsh-born Julia Gillard, who thus had the distinction of becoming Australia’s first female prime minister. Gillard faced a looming poll and a Labor base disgruntled over the treatment of the man they had elected in 2007. She also confronted an opposition Liberal Party energized by a pugnacious leader. One of the most conservative politicians in recent Australian history, Tony Abbott was always going to be anathema to a large block of the voting public, but he proved surprisingly effective on the stump. The outcome was a hung parliament, and several weeks of indecision, until Gillard was able to entice several crossbenchers to form a government. With a shaky grasp on power and a number of Gillard fumbles, Australia may well see its political pendulum start to swing a little faster.
Then, in July, following unusually heavy monsoon rains attributed to the La Nina phenomenon, Pakistan experienced some of the most severe flooding on record; at one point, up to one fifth of the country was underwater. Nearly 2000 people lost their lives, and some 20 million were in some way affected, prompting UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon to describe the flooding as the worst disaster he had ever seen. Already vastly weakened by a widespread conflict with Taliban militants in its North-West territories, the government of President Asif Ali Zardari was unable to mount an effective response, and indeed the Taliban sought to earn local goodwill through its own assistance efforts. The likely outcome is further political unrest in a country that continues to veer dangerously close to implosion in one of the most dangerous parts of the world.
With its election triumph in August 2009, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), embodied the hopes of most Japanese that perhaps their country had finally embraced a two-party system that would impose a measure of accountability on its feckless leaders. Would Japanese politicians now introduce the policies needed to address two decades of malaise—Would Japan finally arrest its apparently inexorable descent into irrelevance? No. The DPJ made a bad start with its choice of leader, Yukio Hatoyama, who had the fashion sense of a hippy ladybug and the charisma of a cucumber. Rather than leverage the goodwill from the election to implement desperately needed change, Hatoyama chose to distract the nation with a spat with the United States over the relocation of an Okinawan base. He lasted scarcely nine months. His party, meanwhile, struggled with funds scandals involving both Hatoyama (who claimed that he wasn’t aware that his mother, a Bridgestone heiress, had injected millions of dollars into his political war-chest) and the real DPJ powerbroker, Ichiro Ozawa. Hatoyama was ousted in June, replaced by Naoto Kan, seen as more of a man of the people. Kan immediately began proposing a future hike in the consumption tax?suicide for a country with no aggregate demand?and was subsequently spanked by the electorate at the July Upper House elections. Still, Kan was able to see off the toxic Ozawa in a party contest. The DPJ closed the year proposing a reduction in the corporate tax rate, but suffering from its perceived mishandling of a territorial dispute with China. The only saving grace for the DPJ was that the opposition Liberal Democratic Party—the people who bought you Japan’s Great Recession—remained equally unpopular. Japan’s mounting problems, meanwhile, await a fix.
Afghanistan is now the longest war in US history, and indeed longer than US the combat role in World War I, World War II, and the Korean War combined. Over a period analogous to the Apollo Programme, it is apropos to ask what the US intervention has achieved. The United States went into Afghanistan in response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The whereabouts of the man held most responsible for those attacks, Osama bin Laden, remains unknown. Meanwhile, the most powerful country in history has sacrificed thousands of lives, a good part of its treasure, and significant chunks of its liberty, civility, and credibility to prop up a corrupt, poppy-growing government that nobody wants, led by a man who seems particularly keen to do a deal with an enemy that was first ousted in 2001.
So, how do things stand in the year following the Obama ‘surge’ of 2009 (a move inspired by a similar approach in Iraq in 2007)? For the US president, arguably the key achievement was neutralizing a potential 2012 rival, with the dispatch of Iraq war hero Gen. David Petraeus to replace Gen. Stanley McChrystal, whose loose lips with a Rolling Stone reporter sunk his career.
The Pentagon does claim signs of progress in 2010, and now talks of staying in the country until 2014. At some point, however, Washington will need to realize that uninvited nation-building is the very definition of quagmire, and to understand that airport measures to make Orwell blush won’t work without a review of its allies and suppliers.
Never usually short of a few verbal volleys, North Korea went a great deal further this year with two deadly attacks—the March torpedoing of the Cheonan corvette, which killed 46 South Korean sailors, and the November shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, which left four South Koreans dead, including two civilians—either of which would usually be a casus belli. But South Korea has traditionally been muted in its responses to Pyongyang’s many provocations, not least because of the North’s ability to bombard Seoul should hostilities escalate. However, widespread public anger over the killing of civilians on Yeonpyeong, and the military’s tepid response, prompted Seoul to draw a line in the sand, with a pledge ‘to completely crush the enemy’ should North Korea strike again.
And so the region, and indeed much of the world, held its breath while South Korea conducted live-fire exercises on Yeonpyeong on December 20. Pyongyang had threatened to retaliate, but ultimately decided to hold its fire.
The North Korean regime has been adept over the years at pushing the envelope just far enough to prompt concessions. However, the calculations have been complicated this year by what appears to be a changing of the guard, from the apparently ailing Kim Jong-il, to his obscure youngest son, Kim Jong-un. Meanwhile, the West has indicated its determination to break the cycle of provocation and response.
Ending the year, North Korea was thankfully looking more conciliatory, but the risks associated with miscalculation are higher than ever.
The rise of China is one of the most important stories of our generation, and Chinese officials have gone to considerable lengths to emphasize that this will be a peaceful tale. But this plot unravelled somewhat in 2010, when Beijing became embroiled in a series of spats from the Google row over privacy at the start of the year, to the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to dissident Liu Xiaobo this month. Nervous neighbours were sent scurrying into the distracted arms of Uncle Sam for reassurance, as China aggressively pushed territorial claims, most notably in an incident with Japan over a set of disputed islands. ‘Rare earths’ emerged from obscurity to appear regularly in the headlines, as China exploited its stranglehold on what turns out to be a strategic market (at least for now).
As former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating said recently, ‘Great powers have great interests,’ and it’s quite reasonable for Beijing to expect the rest of the world to recognize its legitimate interests, just as other great powers have demanded throughout history. But it’s difficult to see what foreign policy objective was met by China’s bellicosity this year, which served only to feed the worst fears of those who have nervously watched its rise. Many observers suggest that the belligerence has been driven by domestic imperatives, with speculation ranging from future leaders jockeying for position to the rising influence of the People’s Liberation Army. Whatever the reason, there was evidence late in the year that China was trying to soothe rattled nerves (or at least until another fishing boat went off the reservation).
China’s actions increasingly set the tone for the Asia-Pacific. Another year as rancorous as this one is likely to create fault lines that could prove hard to repair.