Global Trends by Martin Khor
Monday 19 December 2016
Goodbye 2016, a strange and difficult year
2016 will be remembered as the year the West ended its romance with globalisation, with consequences for the rest of the world.
Just a few days before Christmas, it is time again to look back on the year that is about to pass.
And what a strange year it has been, and not one we can celebrate!
The top event was Donald Trump’s unexpected victory. It became the biggest sign that the basic framework and values underpinning Western societies since the second world war has undergone a seismic change.
The established order represented by Hillary Clinton was defeated by the tumultuous wave Trump generated with his promise to stop the US from pandering to other countries so that it could become “great again.”
Early in the year came the Brexit vote shock, taking the United Kingdom out of the European Union. It was the initial signal that the liberal order created by the West is now being quite effectively challenged by their own masses.
Openness to immigrants and foreigners is now opposed by citizens in Europe and the US who see them as threats to jobs, national culture and security rather than beneficial additions to the economy and society.
The long-held thesis that openness to trade and foreign investments is best for the economy and underpins political stability is crumbling under the weight of a sceptical public that blames job losses and the shift of industries abroad on ultra-liberal trade and investment agreements and policies.
Thus, 2016 which started with mega trade agreements completed (Trans Pacific Partnership) or in the pipeline (the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership between the US and Europe) ended with both being dumped by the President Elect, a stunning reversal of the decades-old US position advocating the benefits of the open economy.
2016 will be remembered as the year when the romance in the West with “globalisation” was killed by a public disillusioned and outraged by the inequalities of an economic system tilted in favour of a rich minority whilst a sizeable majority feel marginalised and discarded.
In Asia, the dismantling of the globalisation ideal in the Western world was greeted with a mixture of regret, alarm and sense of opportunity.
Many in this region believe that trade and investment has served several of their countries well. There is fear that the anti-globalisation rebellion in the West will lead to a rapid rise of protectionism that will hit the exports and industries of Asia.
As Trump announced he would pull the US out of the TPP, China stepped into the vacuum vacated by the US and pledged to be among the torchbearers of trade liberalisation in the Asia-Pacific region and possibly the world.
The change of direction in the US and to some extent Europe poses an imminent threat to Asian exports, investors and economic growth. But it is also an opportunity for Asian countries to review their development strategies, rely more on themselves and the region, and take on a more active leadership role.
China made use of 2016 to prepare for this, with the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank taking off and the immense One Road One Belt project gathering steam.
Many companies and governments are now latching on to the latter as the most promising source of future growth.
The closing months of 2016 also saw a surprising and remarkable shift in position by the Philippines, whose new President took big steps to reconcile with China over conflicting claims in the South China Sea, thus defusing the situation at least for now.
Unfortunately the year also saw heart-rending reports on the plight of the Rohinga in Myanmar, and the deaths of thousands of Syrians including those who perished or were injured in the end-game in Allepo.
On the environmental front, it is likely 2016 will be the hottest year on record, overtaking 2015. This makes the coming into force in October of the Paris Agreement on climate change all the more meaningful.
But there are two big problems. First, the pledges in the agreement are grossly insufficient to meet the level of emissions cuts needed to keep the world safe from global warming, and there is also insufficient financing to support the developing countries’ climate actions, whether on mitigation or adaptation.
And secondly, there is a big question mark on the future of the Paris agreement as Trump had vowed to take the US out of it. The biggest effect of 2016 could be that a climate skeptic was elected US President.
In the area of health, the dangers of antibiotic resistance went up on the global agenda with a declaration and day-long event involving political leaders at the United Nations in September.
There was growing evidence and stark warnings in 2016 that we are entering a post-antibiotic era where medicines will no longer work and millions will die from infection and ailments that could once be easily treated by antibiotics.
The world will also be closing in a mood of great economic uncertainty. In 2016 the world economy overall didn’t do well but also not too badly, with growth rates projected at 2.4 to 3 per cent.
But for developing economies like Malaysia, the year ended with worries that the high capital inflows of recent years are reversing as money flows back to the US. The first in an expected series of interest rate increases came last week.
All in all, there was not much to rejoice about in 2016, and worse still it built the foundation for more difficulties to come in 2017.
So we should enjoy the Christmas/New Year season while we can. Merry Xmas to all readers!