The Nation



Who had the worst year in Asia?

There were plenty of candidates, but Obama tops the list for no-shows that threaten Washington's much-vaunted "rebalancing"

The protests, praise and comments came fast and furious after the decision was made on who had the worst year in Asia.

"Obama did." Or so declared the headline in a Fortune opinion piece I wrote with Jose B Collazo, a regular commentator on Southeast Asia, as 2013 came to a close, and US President Barack Obama vacationed in Hawaii, perhaps to think about the year that might have been.

"I know it is good to be provocative, but Obama having the worst year in Asia is a bit of stretch," wrote one reader. "Well done," said another. "Someone needed to call Obama out for his 'all show no go' behaviour so far this term."

But what of disgraced Chinese politician Bo Xilai, now jailed for life for bribery, embezzlement and abuse of power? Or former Pakistan president and military leader Pervez Musharraf, newly freed from house arrest but still facing a slew of criminal allegations following what has been a disastrous homecoming from self-imposed exile to run for office this past May?

Indeed, the candidates for worst year in Asia were many - from Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her ongoing struggles with tens of thousands of demonstrators on her very doorstep, to then-Australian prime minister Julia Gillard who was swept, along with her party, out of office in September elections despite all of her talk of Australia and the "Asian Century".

In December, Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post had given the US president the dubious distinction of worst year in Washington, citing scandals, leaks of classified information, and the failed launch of a US federal health insurance exchange that went to the heart of Obama's signature first-term domestic legislative achievement, "Obamacare".

So, what of the view from Washington on who had the worst year in 2013 when it came to Asia? The award went once again to one of its own: President Obama.

Obama won this second dubious distinction for failing to add substance to style in the much-ballyhooed "pivot to Asia" and ceding the initiative to others on everything from Myanmar to quite literally the Moon, as Asia watched with a mix of pride, envy and trepidation as China successfully landed a spacecraft on the lunar surface.

As with so much else, 2013 began with much promise and hope for the US president in Asia. Fresh off his re-election, Obama closed out 2012 with a landmark visit to Myanmar and the lifting or suspension of a range of sanctions against that once pariah nation.

Asia longed for his return, symbolic though it might have been, as this past year unfolded, and a more robust pivot, or "rebalancing" of US efforts towards Asia that went beyond defence and diplomacy. That never came to pass, as Obama became a serial canceller in a region where form, face and protocol matter.

Amid battles over the US budget, he cancelled long-planned stops in the Philippines, a long-time ally, and in Malaysia, which was playing host to an entrepreneurship summit stemming from an initiative Obama had announced at his "A New Beginning" speech delivered with great fanfare in June 2009. Then he cancelled his entire Asia trip, including participation in key regional summits in Indonesia and Brunei, ceding the stage to China.

The Asia pivot was seen as more about presentation than implementation. Or as one Asia diplomat reportedly quipped after Obama's cancellation, "There's just one problem with the US 'pivot-to-Asia' strategy. The US is not part of it."

Bogged down by a recalcitrant US Congress, as well as by problems of his own making, including perceived indecisiveness on Syria, and just plain bad luck - Edward Snowden's revelations of the National Security Agency's spying operations even as Obama sought to raise the issue of Beijing's espionage at a California summit with China's leader - Obama's really bad year went beyond healthcare and America's borders.

All is not lost, though. There is still time to turn around the situation. Talks toward a Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade agreement continue, Obama is expected in the region in the spring, and China's increasing regional assertiveness is driving Asian nations closer to the United States. There is still time for Obama to leverage the tremendous amount of goodwill that remains in Asia towards America and Americans and to work with US congressional leaders of both parties to add substance to rhetoric in shaping and funding a pivot that goes well beyond defence and diplomacy to fully encompass business, culture and education.

Curtis S Chin, a former US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank under presidents Barack Obama and George W Bush (2007-2010), is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC. Follow him on Twitter at @CurtisSChin.

The worst (and best) of the rest

Really bad year

Jang Song-thaek, for losing his life, if not his head:

Despite being the uncle of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and a vice-chairman in the military, Jang was found guilty of plotting to overthrow the government and promptly executed, leading experts to believe that the episode was meant more as a warning shot to others in North Korea. It was also a clear sign that this North Korean apple does not fall far from the tree, but that family is not everything.

Bad year

The Asian Journalist, for barely surviving a year of living dangerously:

Whether facing increasing state harassment and imprisonment, if not outright murder, Asia's journalists were increasingly challenged in their ability to speak truth to power. The recent killings of Filipino radio hosts Rogelio "Tata" Estrada Butalid and Michael Diaz Milo dramatised the plight and occupational hazards of being a journalist in Southeast and East Asia.

Nguyen Tan Dung, for failing to launch a much needed "Doi Moi 2.0":

The Vietnamese prime minister barely survived a rare parliamentary "low confidence vote," and was accused by lawmakers of not having the vision or the muscle to right Vietnam's underperforming economy, reform its education system, and root out corruption. The excitement and promise of reforms heralded some two decades ago under "Doi Moi" are in need of a serious reboot.

Not-so-good year

Aung San Suu Kyi, for falling from grace:

Democracy icon and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi came under heavy criticism last year, accused of placing her own political aspirations above the welfare of Myanmar's persecuted Muslim Rohingya minority and of failing to outright condemn the anti-Muslim purges that have coincided with that country's political and economic reforms.

Not-so-bad year

Hun Sen, for doing it his way (every year):

You could say that the Cambodian Prime Minister always has a good year. That's the way it's been for the nearly 30 years he's been in power. 2013 brought a close election and a reality check from the Cambodia National Rescue Party, but in true Hun Sen style he ignored calls for new elections and called everyone's bluff to withhold foreign aid to his country.

Good year

Dennis Rodman, for taking "basketball diplomacy" into overtime:

The piercings, the tattoos, the feather boas - not sure where they all fit in diplomatic protocol, but the five-time NBA champion is taking sports diplomacy into uncharted territory - North Korea. Not since the 1970s, when "ping-pong" diplomacy helped establish relations between the United States and China, has sport been as central in foreign affairs.

Li Xinping, for putting Chinese (tyre) tracks on the Moon:

The Chinese president locked down his leadership control, stole the headlines from a missing-in-action US president in key Asia summits and joined a billion Chinese in proudly watching China become only the third nation to land a spacecraft on the Moon.

Really good year (almost)

Shinzo Abe, for bringing hope back to Japan:

Whether it's his "Abenomics" which has breathed life into Japan's flat-lining economy or his own pivot to Asia which saw him increase engagement across the region, the Japanese prime minister's actions are instilling confidence at home and being noticed abroad. More controversially, Abe then succeeded in ratcheting up tensions with China by visiting the Yasukuni shrine to Japan's war dead.

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