Source: Economist Intelligence Unit
2014 has been a tumultuous, difficult, peculiar, as well as uneasy year for dozens of countries across the world. As of what we have seen so far, we have experienced missing airplanes, mass protests, return of dictatorships, currencies tumbling, political tensions, elections gone wrong, and dozens of things else which seemingly appear dim, indifferent, and oftentimes unforgiving. Nonetheless, taking it in other perspectives, there already appeared hopes, good expectations, new leaders, and new mindsets. Economy has successfully rebounded in some places, scientific breakthroughs taken place, and conventional wisdom redefined. What else to expect in 2015? Having looked at all the hodgepodge occurring this year, it is worthwhile reviewing 2014 as it nears its end in two days or so.
Reminder: not all countries will be reviewed.
I’ll review these events by countries in alphabetical order as follows:
Afghanistan – not much progress has happened in terms of security, despite the end of 13-year NATO mission in this war-torn nation, which has seen countless lives, mostly civilians, perished. Indeed, this year is a particularly deadly one: more than 4,000 Afghans, soldiers, civilians, and Taliban fighters altogether, have died in a triangle of conflicts between each other. However, this year also marks the first time a relatively peaceful election organized, with an iconoclastic World Bank economist, Ashraf Ghani (formerly an anthropology major), elected as the new president, which, after months of protracted conflict with a former tribal commander, Abdullah Abdullah, agreed to form a ‘national unity government’. Equipped with technocratic experiences in rebuilding the country’s currency and housing system, which have seen some pretty good success, it is hoped that Ghani can gradually commence to reform this country, something the public is yet to anticipate next year.
Algeria / Burkina Faso / France / Mali – Air Algerie Flight 5017 tragedy took place. A flight that was supposed to fly 116 people from Ouagadougou, capital of Burkina Faso, to Algiers, capital of Algeria, ended up in a plane crash in a large swath of Sahara Desert in northern Mali, killing all people on board. The bulk of the passengers were Burkinabes and French. (This is not a pretty good year for aviation, to be honest)
Australia – Sydney hostage crisis was a ‘black swan’ phenomenon for this country known for its almost guaranteed safety. But this also serves as a cautionary tale for Tony Abbott’s government, whose popularity has been at stake with many unpopular policies amid a slowing economy, as hundreds of Australians are believed to have joined the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The murder of 8 underage children in Cairns is also another tragedy befalling this country.
Brazil – World Cup was successfully organized in this country recently recovering from mass protests in 2013, when millions of people took to the streets to demand more attention by Dilma Rousseff’s government to address social inequality issues. This year also oversaw presidential election, by which Rousseff was reelected for the second time. Many issues remain for the President to solve throughout her tenure, however.
Brunei – this oil-rich country of barely 420,000 people became international headlines when the country’s ruler, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, approved of first-phase sharia rules to be implemented on a nationwide scale. Caning is now introduced as punishment, and will soon be followed by other harsher ones, including amputation of hands for theft and decapitation for murder and other sinful activities. And what now happens? Emigration rate is slowly peaking up (but largely compensated by the huge inflow of migrants into this economy still enjoying the bonanza from oil industry, despite reduced oil prices).
China – As economic growth has increasingly slowed down, there is increasing proof that China’s decades-old economic miracle is seemingly coming to an end. But not so fast, people. Even with a current single-digit economic growth, the country’s nominal GDP output in 2013 was estimated to be more than 3.3 trillion US$, unmatched by any emerging economy in Asia, and even the whole world. And one achievement, as minor as it seems to be, that China has started to surpass the current global superpower, the United States, can be seen through its GDP figures measured by purchasing power parity: China has gained a whooping level of 16.7 trillion US$, while US itself is now on the level of 16.4 trillion US$.
And seemingly President Xi Jinping, as far as his government is so intent to denounce hegemony in all forms, is doing a paradox that all rising powers inevitably will encounter: exercising hegemony in their own manner. With his firm stance on South China Sea and East China Sea issue, which he explicitly states belongs to Chinese sovereignty, it remains to be seen how conflict escalation will develop in the future, in particular vulnerable states like Vietnam, Philippines, Japan, and India, all of which stake out a territorial dispute with the soon-to-be global superpower. But President Xi has many agenda in his mind as well: he is now envisioning two gigantic, new Silk Road projects, one across continents, and the other across oceans. Two new financial institutions have also been recently announced, namely BRICS’ New Development Bank and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Surely, an alternative form of IMF, World Bank, and ADB, three of which are dominated by European Union, United States, and Japan. In the latest APEC Summit last November, President Xi is also currently pushing for a larger, and even more China-centric alternative of Obama-proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific (FTAAP). China has also increasingly asserted itself in global role by contributing financially to crisis-ravaged countries ranging from Argentina to Russia, while offering countless infrastructure projects in developing countries to strengthen China’s position. Nonetheless, in years to come, while China’s active role remains exciting for dozens of countries desperate for technical assistance, how the country will resolve numerous issues with their neighbors remains a test to be seen.
Anti-corruption campaign itself has also taken a toll with more than 70,000 cadres captured and punished, the most high-profile of which was Zhou Yongkang, the country’s most formidable security czar having embezzled up to 14 billion US$ from state budget. However, hardening this campaign remains a dangerous game for President Xi, as while doing too soft may ravage Communist Party’s legitimacy, responding too harsh will intensify internal clashes between elites competing for influence within the Party’s leadership, therefore putting national security at stake.
Denmark – this Scandinavian country didn’t receive as much attention as others had in mass media, but among diplomatic discourse and in international relations discussions, Denmark was a sensation. This country has, for the first time, emboldened its claim of nearly the entire North Pole, given that the kingdom maintains possession of its centuries-long self-ruled colony, Greenland. Canada, US, Russia, and Norway, countries with similarly big stakes in the Arctic region, have got a new competitor.
Egypt – The country returned again to authoritarian rule after two bloody revolutions in 2011 and 2013. The former was against Hosni Mubarak, while the latter against Mohamed Morsy, the first democratically elected president. Now with Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a military general, leading this nation of more than 80 million, stability was restored, but rather on a false perspective. It was a kind of stability produced only under repression, and limited freedoms of expression. Many political prisoners remained incarcerated, some of whom had already been executed, while Mubarak’s associates were gradually released, including Mubarak himself. What is to expect in 2015? As long as Sisi maintains a strong control and doesn’t address crucial issues (fuel subsidies, gas exports to Israel, Palestine crisis, Suez conflict, ISIS), there isn’t much room for progress.
Guinea / Liberia / Sierra Leone – the Ebola epidemic went out of control this year, completely shutting down the three most severely impacted countries in West Africa. Nearly 20,000 people were infected, with mortality rate exceeding 7,000 people. This also served as a major leadership test for health experts and government leaders alike. While the disease has largely subsided (it didn’t turn out to be a pandemic), this leaves devastating effects for the three nations.
India – the age of national leadership had come with the victory of Narendra Modi, and the party he leads, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in the world’s largest general election held this year. More than 550 million people cast their votes, with an overwhelming majority showing support for Modi, an experienced technocrat having transformed Gujarat, his home state almost 60 million strong, into an investment-friendly regime, despite controversies surrounding 2002 Gujarat riots, by which Modi was possibly implicated. Despite the human rights limbo, Modi has proven himself, so far, as a pretty successful leader, having initiated bold moves to make India more open to investment, and more assertive in global role as well.
Modi’s most ambitious agenda is to turn India into a global power with a stronghold in Indian Ocean, something he expects to achieve within his tenure. So far, he has remained cautious in balancing his relations with both China and Japan, by which Modi was closer to the latter, particularly its prime minister, Shinzo Abe, a doppelganger referred to by some people. Nonetheless, reconciling India-Pakistan relations, despite an initial good start, will remain a challenge to be seen in years to come.
But India must pride itself on its scientific breakthroughs: having sent a spacecraft to Moon, it now sends another to Mars, making use of locally sourced technologies at limited costs. India’s flagship space organization, ISRO, will also design other spacecraft to be sent to other regions within the solar system pretty soon. Stay tuned for next milestones.
Indonesia – this country of 250 million, a role model of democracy for the world, slightly backtracked when parliament dominated by opposition passed a new regional elections bill which eliminated direct elections for governors, regents, and mayors, leading to mass protests. One main reason: much of the people no longer expect a return of dictatorship, something that can be retraced from this unpopular policy, which was soon cancelled by the outgoing Yudhoyono administration signing a presidential order to restore direct elections in administrative levels.
This country also faced another major test in democracy when the country would soon oversee the first direct transfer of power between democratically elected presidents, as seen by the presidential election hardly fought between Joko Widodo, a successful mayor of Surakarta (2005-2012) and governor of Jakarta (2012-2014), and Prabowo Subianto, the former son-in-law of dictator Suharto as well as a former military strongman, who was potentially implicated in a series of human rights abuses. Widodo hailed from humble origins, spending his childhood in riverside slums in Surakarta, while Prabowo originated from a family of aristocrats. This is also the first election by which a civilian with no military background (but with support from old Sukarno-affiliated elites) won, despite massive black campaign.
For the first two months in power, President Widodo had done successfully in addressing some issues, ranging from simplifying investment permits to reforming fiscal extent by decreasing fuel subsidies to more than 10 billion US$, as well as bringing home foreign investment by Chinese infrastructure corporations worth 27 billion US$ during APEC Summit in Beijing. Nonetheless, in terms of human rights issue, there remains much for President Widodo to resolve in the years to come. His ‘global maritime axis’ doctrine, while so far attracting populist support across the nation, remains to be seen in the future, given the country’s limited ability to realize his vision.
But the end of 2014 didn’t come smoothly for this country as an airliner went missing, namely AirAsia Flight QZ8501., the Surabaya-Singapore flight that went wrong. Up to now, the plane hasn’t been discovered. More search efforts will be deployed within due course.
(wait for part 2)