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As the Dragon Enters, Sayonara and Good Riddance to 2023

As Asia welcomes the New Year of the Dragon in 2024, from the Earth to the Moon, the Year of the Rabbit will not be missed. The authors explain.

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Dragon (Public Domain, Ljubjana, Wikimedia Commons)

As the Year of the Dragon — at last — arrives, the past year of war and strife cannot be gone fast enough. Once again, to start 2024, we highlight the winners and losers of the year that's gone in Asia.

For Japan, 2023 was a year when the nation's Gross Domestic Product represented just a 4.2% share of the global economy. That was the lowest since comparable data became available in 1980. A weak yen, a slowing China, and an ever-unpredictable North Korea continue to overshadow what good news there was. 

2024 has also begun sadly with a devastating earthquake centered in Ishikawa Prefecture. It was followed by a fiery plane accident at Tokyo's Haneda Airport, which took the lives of five Coast Guard plane crew members.

Now, even as the earthquake's full impact is revealed, and relief and recovery efforts continue, we pause for a last look at the best and worst of the year that was. Read on. 

Rohingya Muslims walk through waters after they are temporarily allowed by locals to land in Ulee Madon beach. North Aceh, Indonesia. November 16, 2023. (©Reuters/Stringer)

Worst Year: Asia's Forgotten, Still Suffering as Headlines Move On

In 2023, Asia's most vulnerable, often displaced by armed conflict, remained all too forgotten. Priorities shifted and the world's attention turned away from "yesteryear's headlines," moving on to the continuing 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 October 26 to December 8, more than 578,000 people were newly displaced in Myanmar. That was on top of nearly 2 million who were already displaced before the surge in fighting according to the United Nations. 

The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, reports that Bangladesh hosts close to one million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar. That makes it one of the largest protracted refugee situations in the world. 

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In and outside of Afghanistan, the plight of Afghan women and children remains dire. Moreover, 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 UNHCR. Some in Pakistan are now being forced to return to Afghanistan. More than 70 percent of those in need of support are women and children

And so, we gave "Worst Year in Asia 2023" to Asia's forgotten men, women, and children ー 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.

As China's real estate sector crashes, Evergrande and other developers take the Chinese economy along with them. (©Sankei)

Bad Year: China's Property Market, Fearing the Worst is Yet to Come

Japan is no stranger to past real estate bubbles and crises of its own. And China's plight might resonate. Millions of Chinese citizens were still waiting for homes that they put down payments on but might never be built. 2023 was a particularly bad year for China's real estate market. 

By some accounts, that nation's ongoing, protracted real estate crisis and debt levels in general may pose the biggest credit risk to the global economy. For many members 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. Until 2023 it 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 IMF has expressed concern. And Moody's Investors Service 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 once saw homes as more than somewhere to live but also as investments. Now they have reason to fear that 2023 won't be the last bad year they face.

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US President Joe Biden shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Woodside California. November 15, 2023. (© Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

Mixed Year: US-China Relations, Taking a Small Step Forward

US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping met at long last again in person last November at the 2023 APEC leaders summit in San Francisco. The bilateral meeting was a highlight of what was a mixed year for US-China relations. 

That the two leaders met at all was an accomplishment. The lowering of tensions was no doubt also welcomed in Japan. 2023 was after all a year marked by the shooting down of what the United States termed a "Chinese spy balloon." Furthermore, there were continuing tensions on issues ranging from trade, opioids, and semiconductors to Taiwan and the South China Sea

To many Americans' delight, Xi also indicated that additional pandas might be sent on loan to the United States. It was an extension of "pandaplomacy." Japan might well want an extension of Chinese pandaplomacy too. 

2024 may well prove an even more of a mixed year as both leaders focus on domestic issues including a US presidential election and a slowing Chinese economy

South Korean girl group Blackpink featured in a promotion for PUBG Mobile. (Btspurplegalaxy contribs via Wikimedia Commons)

Good Year: Blackpink ー Going Global and Winning Over the World

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 good year.

Jisoo (Kim Ji-soo), Jennie (Kim Jennie), Rosé (Roseanne Chae-young Park), and Lisa (Lalisa Manobal) together make up the members. They ended the year applauded by and awarded honorary MBEs (Members of the British Empire) by King Charles at Buckingham Palace. That was for their role in "bringing the message of environmental sustainability to a global audience as Ambassadors for the UK's Presidency of COP26, and later as advocates for the UN Sustainable Development Goals."

Earlier in April 2023, Blackpink had become the first Asian and all-female band to headline at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. And its album "Born Pink" became the first album from an all-female group to hit No 1 since 2008. The year also ended with news that Blackpink as a group had finally renewed with YG Entertainment, causing that company's KOSDAQ-listed shares to leap by 26%. 

Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh made history in March 2023 by becoming the first Asian to win the Academy Award for Best Actress. Like Yeoh, 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."

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People watch a live stream of Chandrayaan-3 spacecraft's landing on the moon. At Gujarat Science City in Ahmedabad, India on August 23, 2023. (©Reuters/Amit Dave)

Best Year: India's Space Agency—Lifting Spirits, to the Moon & Beyond

The region was far from all doom and gloom this August 2023. 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 August 5. Just over two weeks later, on August 23, its lander named Vikram touched down near the lunar south pole. It made 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 November 2013, which made ISRO the fourth space agency to successfully send a spacecraft to Mars orbit, the relatively low-cost $74.6 million USD Chandrayaan mission demonstrated the power of India's "frugal engineering" model. 

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"India's successful moon mission is not just India's alone," Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared. "This success belongs to all of humanity." 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."

Conclusion

Here's hoping that 2024 and the Year of the Dragon bring with it good news too for Japan's own lunar lander. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)‘s Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM) nicknamed "Moon Sniper" entered the Moon's orbit on December 25, 2023. Japan's successful landing of a spacecraft on the moon might well be sooner rather than later. 

Fingers crossed for a better year ahead from the Earth to the Moon for Japan and all of Asia. 

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Authors: Curtis S Chin and Jose B Collazo 

Curtis S Chin, a former US 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 (formerly known as Twitter) at @CurtisSChin and @JoseBCollazo

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