Curtis S. Chin, a former U.S. ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group. Jose B. Collazo is an analyst focusing on the Indo-Pacific region. Follow them on X at @CurtisSChin and @JoseBCollazo.
As 2023 comes to a close, we take a look at the year that was in Asia and the Pacific region.
From an earthquake in Turkey and Syria that killed 54,000 in February to devastating fires in Maui, Hawaii, that swept through the historic U.S. city of Lahaina this summer, it was a year that many across the vast Asia-Pacific region will want to put far behind them.
But who had it good and who had it bad in 2023? A year that was seemingly full of conflict and empty of much hope and joy.
Best year: India’s space agency
The region was far from all doom and gloom this August as ISRO — the Indian Space Research Organization — dazzled the citizens of what is now the world’s most populous country and space exploration fans everywhere with its latest lunar mission.
The Indian space agency’s Chandrayaan-3 (“moon craft”-3 in Sanskrit) spacecraft entered lunar orbit on Aug. 5, and just over two weeks later, its lander named Vikram touched down near the lunar south pole, making India only the fourth nation to successfully land on the moon. A lunar rover named Pragyan would soon be literally making tracks on the moon.
As with India’s landmark Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) — the nation’s first interplanetary mission to planet Mars in 2013, which made ISRO the fourth space agency to successfully send a spacecraft to Mars orbit the relatively low-cost $74.6 million Chandrayaan mission demonstrated the power of India’s “frugal engineering” model.
“India’s successful moon mission is not just India’s alone,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared. “This success belongs to all of humanity.” And for that reason and for uplifting spirits and bringing a bit of hope and joy in a tough year, ISRO wins “Best Year in Asia 2023.”
Good year: Blackpink going global
2023 might have ended with K-pop global sensation BTS’s members in mandatory military service in Korea and with Taylor Swift named “TIME 2023 Person of the Year,” but for the four superstar women from Asia who make up the all-female K-pop group Blackpink it was most definitely a pleasant 12 months.
Jisoo (Kim Ji-soo), Jennie (Kim Jennie), Rosé (Roseanne Chae-young Park) and Lisa (Lalisa Manobal) together ended the year applauded by and awarded honorary MBEs (Members of the British Empire) by King Charles at Buckingham Palace for their role in “bringing the message of environmental sustainability to a global audience as Ambassadors for the U.K.’s Presidency of COP 26, and later as advocates for the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals.”
Earlier in April, Blackpink had become the first Asian and all-female band to headline at Coachella and its album “Born Pink” became the first album from an all-female group to hit the U.S. number one spot since 2008. The year also ended with news that Blackpink had finally renewed with YG Entertainment, causing that company’s KOSDAQ-listed shares to leap by 26%.
Like Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh who made history in March 2023 by becoming the first Asian to win the Academy Award for Best Actress, the members of Blackpink — from South Korea, New Zealand and Thailand — have also gone global, adding another dimension to the phrase “Everything Everywhere All at Once.”
Mixed year: U.S.-China relations
U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping met at long last again in person this November at the APEC leaders summit in San Francisco — a bilateral meeting that was a highlight of what was a mixed year for U.S-China relations.
That the two leaders met at all was an accomplishment. 2023 was after all a year marked by the shooting down of what the United States termed a “Chinese spy balloon” and continuing tensions on issues ranging from trade, opioids and semiconductors to Taiwan and the South China Sea.
Xi did though, to many an Americans’ delight, indicate that additional pandas might be sent on loan to the United States in an extension of panda-diplomacy.
2024 may well prove an even more of a mixed year as both leaders focus on domestic issues including a U.S. presidential election and a slowing Chinese economy.
Bad year: China’s property market
With millions of Chinese citizens still waiting for homes they put down payments on — but might never be built — 2023 was a particularly bad year for China’s property market.
By some accounts, the nation’s ongoing, protracted real estate crisis and debt levels in general may pose the biggest credit risk to the global economy. For many a member of China’s middle class, however, the crisis is also a very real threat to their “China Dream” and hopes for a better life.
In 2021, the real estate giant China Evergrande defaulted on its debt. In 2023, concerns grew over the financial state of Country Garden, which until last year was China’s biggest real estate developer, specializing in residential property.
With China’s economy still growing but slowing and Chinese property prices continuing to fall, the International Monetary Fund has expressed concern, and Moody’s has cut its outlook on China’s housing sector to negative. State-owned financial institutions are reportedly being called upon to prop up developers struggling to avoid default and finish construction of stalled apartment projects.
Still, some Chinese citizens are refusing to pay their mortgages en masse in a rare form of domestic protest. Chinese families and individuals who once saw homes as more than somewhere to live but also as investments have reason to fear 2023 won’t be the last bad year they face.
Worst year: Asia’s forgotten
In American politics, presidents as different as Franklin Roosevelt and Donald Trump have evoked “the forgotten man” when it served their purposes and agenda. Trump declared that his inauguration marked a moment when “the forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.”
In 2023 in Asia, however, the region’s most vulnerable — often displaced by armed conflict — remain for the most part forgotten. Priorities shifted and the world’s headlines turned away from “yesterday’s news” —moving on to war in Ukraine and then Gaza. Yet, far from most front pages and news feeds, the crises go on in Asia, including in Myanmar and Afghanistan.
The most significant escalation in hostilities in Myanmar since the 2021 coup, for example, worsened an ongoing humanitarian crisis in 2023. From Oct. 26 to Dec. 8, more than 578,000 people were newly displaced in Myanmar on top of nearly 2 million who were already displaced before the surge in fighting, according to the United Nations.
Humanitarian needs also continue to grow in the country’s western Rakhine State, where some 200,000 people are living in camps, mostly Rohingya who have been denied freedom of movement since 2012. The U.N. Refugee Agency reports that Bangladesh hosts close to a million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, making it one of the largest protracted refugee situations in the world.
In and outside of Afghanistan, the plight of Afghan women and children remains dire. Few are likely to know that Afghan refugees are the third-largest displaced population in the world after Syrian and Ukrainian refugees. In 2023, there were at least 8.2 million Afghans hosted across 103 different countries, according to the UNHCR, with some in Pakistan now being forced to return to Afghanistan.
And so, “worst year” in Asia 2023 sadly goes to Asia’s forgotten men, women and children — whether in Myanmar, Afghanistan or elsewhere. Give a thought to how you might learn more and do more to ease their plight in 2024 and beyond.