Insights and Analysis

Asia’s Biggest Issues in 2016? Experts Weigh In

January 6, 2016

In the last year, Asia experienced both highs and lows: historic elections in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, devastating earthquakes in South Asia, booming growth in India and slumping economies in China and Mongolia, anti-government protests in Malaysia, South Korea, and beyond, aging populations juxtaposed with unprecedented youth bulges, a deteriorating security environment in Afghanistan, and pollution, lots of pollution across the region. The region has witnessed game-changing shifts in regional roles and economic and security dynamics. So what does this portend for 2016? To find out, I asked Asia Foundation experts to share what they view will be the pivotal issue in their respective countries this year. Here are perspectives from 18 countries. — In Asia editor, Alma Freeman


“With an estimated 65 percent youth, Afghanistan faces a serious challenge in 2016 and onwards to provide adequate employment opportunities for its new generation. The “brain drain” that started in 2015 will likely increase unless the government implements quick-impact economic development programs to tackle the problem. Increased insecurity and ambiguity on the electoral timeline could also further damage the National Unity Government’s legitimacy in 2016.” — Abdullah Ahmadzai, country representative


“Bangladesh’s ability to plan for, adapt to, and mitigate the impacts of climate change will determine the country’s progress in 2016 and beyond. Increased salinity and rising sea levels are reducing arable and habitable land in coastal areas, driving millions of climate refugees from their homes to seek new livelihoods in urban areas. Dhaka, a megacity of more than 15 million inhabitants, is already over capacity and growing by thousands every month.” — Sara Taylor, deputy country representative

A women walks through a village in the Dacope region of southern Bangladesh, where rising sea levels and increased salinity are threatening livelihoods. Photo/Conor Ashleigh

A women walks through a village in the Dacope region of southern Bangladesh, where rising sea levels and increased salinity are threatening livelihoods. Photo/Conor Ashleigh


“On the back of a decade of economic growth, Cambodia’s rising middle class carries a new, increasingly confident voice, expectant of change. With large, unprecedented losses for Hun Sen’s ruling party in the 2013 national elections, the big challenge in 2016 will be: With local and national elections looming in 2017 and 2018, can the state find the incentives to kick start the kind of reform efforts (think defense, justice, and civil service) which would pave the way for the country to have a peaceful transition of power, if necessary?” — Silas Everett, country representative


“China’s global engagement has deepened in tandem with its rise as a world power. Its impact on Asian regional development in particular is expected to grow in 2016 when the new China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank begins operations in January, and as China intensifies its effort to promote the Silk Road Economic Belt and Maritime Silk Road initiative (the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’).” — Ji Hongbo, acting country representative


“Prime Minister Modi’s surprise visit to Pakistan on Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s birthday in December 2015 marks a departure in Indo-Pak relations as both countries now want to focus first on the relationship rather than the agenda. This may or may not translate into concrete outcomes at a bilateral level immediately. But at a regional level, definite progress on South Asian regional integration and perhaps even Afghan security is very possible by the end of 2016.” — Sagar Prasai, country representative


“2016 will be pivotal for Indonesia in its fight against endemic corruption. Having completed the first full year of his presidency, with no majority support in the House, Joko Widodo’s position is seen by many as stronger. Public perception is positive after he made a bold statement against the powerful speaker of the House on a potential corruption case. How he uses this support to disentangle interlocking economic and political interests is key in determining Indonesia’s success in 2016.” — Sandra Hamid, country representative


“Korea has made remarkable strides in recent decades and now plays a leading role on the global stage. In 2016, the country will need to work through a number of domestic challenges that could be amplified by shifts in the global financial market. Going into parliamentary elections in April that forecast the outcome of the 2017 presidential race, soaring household debt, labor reform, one of the world’s lowest birthrates, an aging population, youth unemployment, and a slowdown in economic growth will be front and center of the political discourse.” — Dylan Davis, country representative


In 2016, Laos will serve as the Chair of ASEAN. Laos first chaired the grouping in 2004, but this time is even more critical with the launch of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) at the close of 2015. As the region deals with a broad range of economic, environmental, and security challenges, it will be vitally important for Laos to keep the momentum for enhanced regional cooperation and integration in Southeast Asia. Making progress in these areas will not only help to advance Laos’ own interests and standing in the region, but will also strengthen the credibility and influence of ASEAN as a whole. — John J. Brandon, senior director of The Asia Foundation’s regional cooperation programs in Washington, D.C.


“The rising cost of living in Malaysia will be a major challenge stepping into 2016 as further subsidies will be removed, especially on electricity. Although stats indicate that the national median wage growth has generally outpaced inflation, it is lower than price growth in many consumer items, especially food goods. To add to this, Malaysians will have to brace for lower purchasing power due to the weak Ringgit in 2016. This will affect consumer spending that could dampen Malaysia’s domestic economic growth.” — Herizal Hazri, country representative


“Mongolia continues to face a significant economic downturn, slowing its recent double-digit growth to an expected 3-3.5 percent in 2016. The prospect of a disastrous winter or dzud ahead may result in catastrophic losses of livestock that would ruin the livelihoods of dzud-affected herders. The effect will be increased migration to the capital which is already stretched to provide basic public services. This spring, Mongolian voters will vote for a new Parliament and there is already a palpable sense that the citizenry want to see change.” — Meloney Lindberg, country representative


“Voters in Myanmar gave Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy an extraordinary mandate in the November 2015 general elections to deepen the democratic transition, address longstanding ethnic conflicts, and achieve economic prosperity. The big challenge in 2016:  Can an opposition movement successfully navigate the challenges of governing, including building a workable relationship with the powerful military without tarnishing its democratic credentials?” — Kim Ninh, country representative


Supporters of the National League for Democracy during Myanmar’s 2015 elections. Photo/Thet Htoo


“Following seven years of fitful birthing, the country’s new constitution was promulgated in September 2015, and instantly became the epicenter of ongoing political turmoil that threatens to constrain progress on many fronts in Nepal. The most pernicious characteristic of Nepali political practice over the past several decades – marginalization – unfortunately persists in the new constitution, despite rhetoric of inclusion and social justice. In 2016, this has to change – not just in word but also in deed – for equality, justice, and truly democratic politics to prevail in Nepal.” — George Varughese, country representative


“Security improved in Pakistan in 2015 because of army crackdowns against militancy in western border regions and crime in Karachi. But with the government now halfway through its term, many think that the army’s powerful influence is growing even stronger. How the civil-military balance develops and how thoroughly the government addresses social and economic imbalances including persistent poverty and a struggling education system will affect the future of the still fragile democracy in 2016.” — Gareth Aicken, country representative


“In July, everything will change as President Aquino ends his single 6-year term, which featured constant economic growth, some poverty reduction, progress towards Mindanao peace, and better overall governance. Or, nothing will change since the same clans and factions will dominate politics and economics; it has been two decades since the last burst of social and economic reforms under President Ramos. Probably a bit of both – economic growth along with better health and education programs bringing changes, but slowly.” — Steven Rood, country representative

Sri Lanka

“The defining challenge for Sri Lanka in 2016 will be to “walk the walk” on good governance. Moving beyond the political balancing act of holding a fragile coalition together, the Sirisena-Wickremasinghe leadership now needs to take some bold steps to manage expectations from an increasingly impatient citizenry. However, with local government elections scheduled in March, pandering to populism is likely to take precedence over the big ticket reforms that everyone is awaiting.” — Dinesha de Silva, country representative


“After seizing power in the May 2014 coup, Thailand’s military leaders pledged to complete a time-bound constitutional drafting process and other “reforms” before returning power to an elected government. Twenty months on, there is no definitive timeline for elections, the economy lies in the doldrums, and the government has all but silenced critics through controversial legal and other measures. In 2016, Thais and international observers will watch for signals that Thailand will return to electoral democracy, set a sound policy course for economic growth, and strengthen the institutions needed to support an enduring political settlement.” — Kim McQuay, country representative

Following the May 2014 coup, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) pledged to return Thailand to democracy after drafting a new constitution and completing other reforms. Photo/Kim McQuay

Following the May 2014 coup, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) pledged to return Thailand to democracy after drafting a new constitution and completing other reforms. Photo/Kim McQuay


“In the run up to Timor-Leste’s 2017 election, a growing dissatisfaction with the pace of economic development, widening gaps in inequality, and rampant corruption may finally usher in real transition to a new cadre of leadership in a post-Xanana Gusmão world. While the charismatic leader stepped down as prime minister and appointed a member of the opposition in his place in 2015, the move was largely considered a strategic consolidation of power. It remains to be seen whether this results in a more inclusive approach to development in 2016.” — Susan Marx, country representative


“China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea have created rifts within ASEAN and have provoked responses from the United States. As a frontline state in this conflict, Vietnam has drawn closer to the U.S., whose economic, diplomatic, and military support it needs, while trying not to alienate its northern neighbor. This difficult balance will feature prominently over the next year in both domestic policy and regional relations.” — Michael DiGregorio, country representative

The views and opinions expressed here are of the experts, not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.

1 Comment

  1. I appreciate the free and franc analysis. The public policy analyst can really draw a clear picture as how the Asian countries will look like in 2016 in terms of better stability and security in the region.

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