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Asia’s Biggest Issues in 2018: Experts Weigh In

January 3, 2018

Without a doubt, 2017 put Asia to the test. Religious and ethnic tensions spilled out onto the streets, game-changing elections toppled leaders as new ones emerged, some economies boomed while others declined. Meanwhile, natural disasters such as the devastating floods in South Asia—the worst in a decade—killed over 1,000 people, displaced millions, and called into question the region’s ability to respond to disaster. At the same time, inspiring stories of hope and change—such as a rocker’s unifying walk across Thailand and a record number of locally elected women leaders in Nepal—continue to influence the region and drive it forward.

To find out what to expect in 2018, 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

Afghanistan’s struggle is expected to continue in 2018 on many issues, including stalled peace negotiations with the Taliban, holding parliamentary elections, implementing security reforms, and stimulating economic development. The National Unity Government is as of yet unprepared to hold the parliamentary elections, and any delays in elections beyond 2018 would leave Afghanistan with no elected entity by 2019. For state legitimacy, parliamentary elections need to be held prior to the 2019 presidential elections. Holding elections in 2018 will also help regain the trust and confidence of the international and national stakeholders in NUG’s commitment to democratic processes in the country. — Abdullah Ahmadzai, country representative

2018 will be a year of elections for Bangladesh, with a series of city-level elections planned during the first few months and parliamentary elections expected at the end of the year. How the government, political parties, and citizens respond to the elections will be a crucial indicator of the country’s democratic trajectory in 2018. Elections are not the only story, though. The Rohingya refugee crisis will remain a major focus, as the government continues to work with the international community to find practical solutions in both the short and long term. — Sara Taylor, country representative

Cambodia faces an unpredictable road ahead in the first half of 2018. The dissolution of the Cambodian National Rescue Party at the end of 2017 has put the country in an unprecedented situation. The Cambodian government promises to hold a general election in July; however, it is unclear who the participants will be. The economy is predicted to continue growing this year by 7 percent, yet political uncertainty may overshadow the generally positive business environment, leading to fewer investors coming to Cambodia. The bottom line for Cambodians in 2018 is whether the government takes clear steps to maintain growth while balancing good governance. — Meloney Lindberg, country representative

In his report to the 19th Party Congress in October 2017, which marked the beginning of his second five-year term, Party General Secretary Xi Jinping proclaimed that we are now in “an era that sees China moving closer to center stage and making greater contributions to mankind.” The Belt and Road Initiative, which Xi first described in 2013, is now written into the Party’s Charter. In 2018, it remains to be seen what concrete measures China will continue to take to promote economic globalization and a greater voice for China on global affairs, and the impact on global governance and world economic and social development. — Ji Hongbo, country representative

Attention of Indians will turn to January 2019 general elections fairly early in 2018. There are eight high-stake state-level elections between now and 2019 which will force the Modi government to focus on reelection rather than economic reforms. Prospects of blistering growth in India will have to wait until the dust settles in 2019. — Sagar Prasai, country representative

Despite the Indian government’s focus on economic reforms, attention is expected to turn toward elections this year. Photo/Conor Ashleigh

In 2018, in Java alone more than 50 percent of Indonesians will head to the polls in gubernatorial elections for West, Central, and East Java. Contestations in arguably the most politically important island in Indonesia are extremely significant as a prelude to the 2019 presidential election when President Joko Widodo will run for his second and final term. The president’s challenge will be to find the balance between addressing rising identity politics in elections and firmly holding his ground in defending the sacrosanct idea of a diverse and inclusive Indonesia. With 2018 results as the backdrop, voters will have the final word in 2019 on where they want to see Indonesia heading in the next five years. — Sandra Hamid, country representative

Following an unprecedented and tumultuous 2017 that led to the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye, the political pendulum in Korea shifts after a decade of conservative rule to a new liberal Moon Jae-in administration, which is focusing its efforts on inclusive economic growth through public sector job creation, raising the minimum wage, and tax reform. With economic momentum building and Korea poised to host the 2018 Winter Olympic Games, rapidly escalating tensions with North Korea over its nuclear program and coordination among countries in the region will be the most pressing issue for the Moon administration in 2018. — Dylan Davis, country representative

Is sunny Laos embracing a new “sunlight policy?” A government-led anti-corruption campaign is encouraging officials to voluntarily return ill-gotten gains to the Treasury. The Prime Minister’s Office and National Assembly now operate hotlines for citizens to comment on government performance and express grievances. In 2018, we’re likely to see even more government agencies utilize Facebook to better connect with the public and improve service delivery. Citizens can now download laws via the Lao Law App and even comment on draft laws via the Lao Official Gazette. These are a few recent reforms in Laos that are being applauded and should be expanded so that Laos can achieve its stated goal of becoming a “rule of law state” by 2020. — Nancy Kim, country representative

Malaysia’s national elections, due by August 2018, will be the biggest event of the year. The opposition—led by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed is set for the most aggressive political battle in decades. Should the opposition win the election, Malaysians will see the first-ever change of government since independence. More importantly, will Malaysia go through a peaceful transition of power or otherwise? On the other hand, should Prime Minister Najib secure a win, will he introduce a renewed reform agenda Malaysia truly needs? 2018 is set to inform Malaysia’s political future. Will Malaysians vote to maintain political order or will they seek change like never before? — Herizal Hazri, country representative

After years of severe economic downturn, Mongolia’s economy is forecast to grow in 2018. Remarkably, this has happened in an environment of continuing political uncertainty after the government changed hands in October following a power struggle within the ruling Mongolian People’s Party (MPP). The education sector featured prominently in 2017, and we may see continued teacher demonstrations over low pay and revelations about corruption. Air pollution in Ulaanbaatar is a worsening problem, with new studies showing dramatic negative effects on children, pregnant women, and workplace productivity. Efforts to address this crisis have been limited, while public frustration grows and may reach a tipping point in the new year. — Edward Anderson, acting country representative and Diana Fernandez, deputy country representative

A beacon of hope for democracy in 2015 as Aung San Suu Kyi led the National League for Democracy to a landslide electoral victory, Myanmar’s transition now faces much uncertainty. The government’s lackluster performance in achieving further governance and economic reforms and forward movement in the peace process was further undermined by an inadequate response in late 2017 to the humanitarian crisis facing the Rohingya population. It’s a sobering reminder of how raw and unfinished a transition it is, and the fundamental question remains even in a new Myanmar: what does it mean to belong and who gets to decide? — Kim Ninh, country representative

The successful completion of elections to local, provincial, and federal governments in Nepal were remarkable achievements in 2017 for a country that has been in transition since the early 1990s. There is already an eagerness, albeit with corresponding anxiety, in most Nepalis about how to share power and self-rule after decades of adversarial politics. However, to truly reap the dividends of the country-wide mandate for change in 2018, they must get started immediately on confronting entrenched impunity and attendant corruption, injustice, and marginalization. — George Varughese, country representative

Nepal local elections

Election campaigning for the May 14 local elections in Nepal, the first to be held in 20 years. Photo/Skanda Gautam/The Himalayan Times

Gearing up for general elections in July, Pakistan will face increasing political activity including intense political rallying and alliance-building with emerging religious parties. While economic growth promises to be steady with continued investments under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor framework, the overall political and security situation will continue to be volatile. Youth employment, water security, and creating shared benefits of growth with marginalized populations will remain key priorities for Pakistan in 2018. — Sofia Shakil, country representative

The Philippines faces a number of potentially game-changing decisions in 2018. Consensus on amending the Constitution to change to a federal system of government would radically alter the system of government, and reset the national/subnational balance of power that has existed since independence. Other issues include agreement on legislation to implement the 2014 Bangsamoro peace agreement which could solidify the path to peace in the south, a choice between war or a return to some form of negotiation with the remnants of communist insurgents, and decisions on how to implement the “war on drugs” without killing. Most importantly for the average citizen, though, will be whether the Duterte Administration success in passing tax reforms in late 2017, coupled with its infrastructure ambitions, can continue to drive strong economic growth. — Sam Chittick, country representative

Sri Lanka
The heady days of post-January 2015 good governance euphoria seem far behind, as Sri Lanka prepares for long-delayed local government elections set for February. The hard realities of sustaining a coalition government and fulfilling the aspirations of an increasingly cynical populace have sent the government far off its reform agenda. However, a glimmer of hope was evident in the new finance minister’s progressive budget, and one hopes that the new year will also bring some much-needed consensus on constitutional reform. — Dinesha de Silva, country representative

Thailand is in transition, and the stakes could not be higher. Underlying the political transition are two crucial issues for Thailand’s future: inequality and declining economic competitiveness. The current government has been trying to tackle these issues head-on, with a dizzying array of simultaneous reform efforts, education programs, infrastructure projects, and new initiatives in the under-developed Northeastern region. Will 2018 be a breakthrough year? With an election planned for November, you can expect intensive efforts to tackle these enduring challenges. — Thomas Parks, country representative

With a historic deal reached on a permanent maritime boundary in 2017 between Australia and Timor-Leste, all eyes are watching whether another deal can be reached on how to develop the shared $50 billion Greater Sunrise gas field. At the same time, the country waits in anticipation for a political breakthrough. Whether the current government stays in power, a minority coalition forms a new government, or new elections are held, diversifying the economy and raising 40 percent of the population out of poverty in a sustainable and inclusive manner is the most ambitious and pressing challenge ahead. — Todd Wassel, country representative

As Vietnam’s economy has grown, overseas development assistance has dwindled. The country now faces a greater reliance on taxes, loans, bonds, and private sector funding to meet its development goals. In 2018, Vietnam will place even greater focus on pursuing these sources of funding. If corruption, waste and fraud cannot be controlled, the possibility that a significant portion of these funds will be diverted, misused, and wasted remains high, and as a result, public trust in government would decline and national debt would continue to rise. — Michael R. DiGregorio, country representative



  1. What a great idea to do this comprehensive summary of the challenges our 18 offices face! Helpful to see it all in one place.

  2. Nice summaries of the individual countries.

  3. Well done highlighting, in your opening paragraph, the extent to which disasters are important in Asia. Less well done to your correspondents for not highlighting this in their pieces: national politics (even for those signatories of the Sendai Framework) are not the exclusive solution to what affects the daily lives, livelihoods, hopes and futures of so many citizens. A focus on community power, or vulnerability, would be helpful. Thanks

  4. This is a meaningful summary. Thanks

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InAsia is a bi-weekly in-depth, in-country resource for readers who want to stay abreast of significant events and issues shaping Asia’s development, hosted by The Asia Foundation. Drawing on the first-hand insight of renowned experts, InAsia delivers concentrated analysis on issues affecting each region of Asia, as well as Foundation-produced reports and polls.

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