Seven Stories That Defined Asia in 2018

From the standpoint of true spectacle, no moment better captured 2018 than the handshake between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on June 12 in Singapore, the first day of a historic three-day summit between the two. But the story that may have the biggest repercussions for the future is the increasingly contentious relationship between the U.S. and China — one that appeared to reach an inflection point in 2018. 

As we buckle up for what promises to be an eventful 2019, here's our annual look at the stories that most defined Asia this year — and how Asia Society covered them.

Trade conflict intensified between the U.S. and China in 2018
Trade conflict between the U.S. and China intensified in 2018. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

The U.S.-China Relationship: From 'Strategic Engagement' to 'Strategic Competition'

If a single day this year could encapsulate the state of U.S.-China relations in 2018, it would be December 1. Returning home from Buenos Aires, where world leaders had gathered for the annual G20 summit, President Trump announced that he would delay imposing tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese goods, offering hope that the two countries may avert their escalating trade conflict. But any warm feelings evaporated with the news that Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, had been arrested in Vancouver on suspicion of violating U.S. sanctions on Iran.

The two seemingly unrelated stories both reinforce the year's most significant story: The crucial Sino-American relationship appears to be undergoing a tectonic shift. In the four decades since Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms set China on its current trajectory, U.S. policy reflected a belief that the country’s inclusion in the global economy would mitigate security concerns. "But an intellectually honest appraisal must now admit," said former U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson at Asia Society last month, "both that this hasn’t happened — and that the reverse seems to be the case."

In a series of speeches delivered throughout the year, Asia Society Policy Institute President Kevin Rudd has argued that the U.S. approach to China has evolved from "strategic engagement" to "strategic competition," of which the bilateral dispute over trade is just one component. How Washington and Beijing will manage the new logic of their relationship is the crucial question of 2019 and beyond.

Learn more

Kevin Rudd on U.S.-China Relations: What Happens Next?
Can China and the United States Avoid War?
The China Dashboard: Tracking China's Economic Reform Program
Huawei Arrest Shows Trump Has No Game Plan Against China
The United States and China at a Crossroads

Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong Un meet in Pyongyang.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in (L), pictured here with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (R), says that "something miraculous is happening on the Korean peninsula." Will the good feelings last? (Pyeongyang Press Corps/Pool/Getty Images)

North Korea’s Diplomatic Charm Offensive

Following a contentious 2017 — when the rhetorical war between the United States and North Korea escalated sharply — there seemed to be little reason to expect 2018 to be no different. But on January 1, the mercurial Kim Jong Un delivered a conciliatory speech toward South Korea, pledging to send a delegation to the upcoming Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang and wishing for “peaceful relations” with the South, with which North Korea technically remains at war.

This modest step toward reconciliation set the stage for a remarkable flurry of diplomacy from the once-isolated North Korean leader. Kim, who had never left North Korea since assuming control of the country upon his father's death in 2011, traveled to China three times to meet Xi Jinping; he also met with his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in on three occasions. Following the last of these visits, Moon told an audience at an Asia Society program in September that Kim’s activity reflected a desire to modernize his country. "Something miraculous is happening on the Korean peninsula," Moon said.

But nothing Kim did in 2018 achieved quite the spectacle of his June summit with President Trump, the first-ever meeting of a sitting U.S. president and North Korean leader. The meeting, according to Trump, went well: The president claimed that the nuclear threat from the North was now over. Not everyone was convinced. According to Daniel Russel, Vice President of Security and Diplomacy at the Asia Society Policy Institute, Trump granted a meaningful concession — the cessation of U.S.-South Korea military exercises — in exchange for little more than a vague promise from North Korea to halt its nuclear program, one Pyongyang seems disinclined, so far, to adhere to.

"President Trump left Singapore without leverage, and Kim Jong Un returned to Pyongyang with his ability to threaten the United States intact," Russel said.

But it’s difficult to deny that relations between North Korea, its neighbors, and the United States are better than they were a year ago when the prospect of military action seemed alarmingly possible.

"Compared to where we were last year, it is a much-improved situation," John Park, director of the Korea Working Group at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, said this month at Asia Society. "What’s happening now is a lowering of the threshold. Even stalled talks are given room to continue. It’s a measured hope."

Learn more:

'Something Miraculous Is Happening on the Korean Peninsula'
'Paradigm Shift' or 'Nothing Burger'? Asia Society Reacts to the Trump/Kim Summit
Bitter Allies: China and North Korea
The View From Kim Jong Un's Bunker: How North Korea Sees the World

Jamal Khashoggi's Death Placed Increased Pressure on Saudi Arabia
The murder of dissident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul led to an international furor at Saudi Arabia's behavior. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

A High-Profile Murder — and Yemen's Suffering — Place Saudi Arabia Under a Microscope

The world’s worst humanitarian crisis is occurring in Yemen, where a civil war between Iran-backed Houthi rebels and the U.S.-and-Saudi-supported Yemeni government has led to 17,000 deaths since 2015 and displaced millions more from their homes. An estimated 14 million people — roughly half Yemen’s population — are at risk of famine.

Until recently, Saudi Arabia's prosecution of the war attracted little criticism from the United States, whose traditional alliance with Riyadh has strengthened during the Trump administration. But a shocking crime has brought fresh scrutiny to the Saudi-American relationship. In October, Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in Istanbul while attempting to obtain a visa at the Saudi consulate. Following an investigation, American officials said that it was highly likely that Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a charismatic young prince with de facto control of the country and a close Trump ally, was involved — a charge that the prince has denied.

The civil war in Yemen has placed 14 million civilians at risk of starvation.
The civil war in Yemen has placed an estimated 14 million Yemeni civilians at risk of starvation. (Essa Ahmed/AFP/Getty Images)

Despite the international outcry caused by the Khashoggi killing, the Trump administration has only reaffirmed the importance of the Saudi-American relationship. But sentiment within the U.S. government as a whole is shifting. In December, the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate passed a resolution blaming Prince Mohammed for the murder and withdrawing U.S. support for the Saudi campaign in Yemen. With Trump in the White House, the bill stands no chance at becoming law. But it does indicate that the era of unqualified American support for Riyadh has come to an end.

For the Yemenis, a U.S. Senate resolution — much less a largely symbolic one — is not enough in the short term to improve their dire situation. But the high-profile Khashoggi murder has at least foisted attention on a humanitarian crisis that had previously, and shamefully, escaped close scrutiny.

Iranian newspapers report on President Donald Trump's withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Deal
President Trump's withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Deal could have lasting consequences for a changing Iranian society. (Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)

President Trump Withdraws From the Iran Nuclear Deal

In May, President Donald Trump fulfilled a campaign promise to withdraw the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), better known as the Iran Nuclear Deal, and reimpose sanctions on Iran. "The fact is this was a horrible one-sided deal that should have never, ever have been made," he said.

The deal isn’t quite dead — Iran and the four European co-signatories still abide by it — but the consequences for the country and region are likely to be large. Washington’s reimposition of sanctions, even if Europe manages to evade them, could cripple Iran’s economy, removing incentives for Tehran not to restart its nuclear weapons program. The withdrawal could also strengthen hardliners within the Iranian government opposed to engagement with the United States, as well as damage U.S. relations with its European allies and even China — as the Meng Wanzhou arrest attests.

Hope for a thaw in the four-decade freeze in Iranian-American relations has extinguished — likely for a while. But Trita Parsi, founder and president of the National Iranian American Council, argues that in spite of the continued conservative dominance of the country, a perceptible change in Iran is afoot. Anti-government protests, driven by frustration over a sclerotic economy, have periodically erupted across the country in 2018, indicating dissatisfaction with the status quo. He discussed the causes of these protests — as well as larger shifts in Iranian society — in an episode of Asia Abridged

Learn more:

Expert: U.S. Withdrawal From Nuclear Deal Would Strengthen Iranian Hardliners

Protesters of China's policies in Xinjiang march
China's internment of up to one million Uighur citizens in "re-education camps" elicited international outrage. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images)

China Detains Up to One Million Uighurs in Xinjiang

Xinjiang, a region in far western China more than twice the size of Texas, is the setting for one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises: The Chinese government has detained as many as one million members of the Uighur minority in “re-education” facilities in which they’re cut off from the outside world and subject to forced labor. The situation is scarcely better for Uighurs outside the camps, who have reported severe restrictions on their freedom to practice their religion, travel, and communicate with relatives outside the country. In October, ChinaFile reported that an estimated one million members of China’s Han majority have taken up residence in Uighur homes for the purposes of political indoctrination.

The plight of the Uighurs reflects a shift in China’s policy toward its 55 ethnic minority groups, whose presence China once trumpeted as proof of its pluralistic, harmonious society. But decades after Maoism faded and amid stagnating economic reforms, the Chinese government under the ever-powerful Xi Jinping has increasingly framed nationalism as a tool for unity — one that increasingly refers only to China's Han majority. 

Learn more:

China’s Government Has Ordered a Million Citizens to Occupy Uighur Homes. Here’s What They Think They’re Doing.
What's Happening in Xinjiang? Four Questions About China's Human Rights Crisis

Imran Khan was elected president of Pakistan in July
Cricket star-turned-president of Pakistan Imran Khan has had to contend with a balance of payments crisis in his first months in office. (Farooq Naeem/AFP/Getty Images)

Elections Across Asia Illustrate China's Power — And Its Limits

Elections held this year in four Asian democracies — Malaysia, Pakistan, Taiwan, and the Maldives — illustrated how China's economic shadow is felt across the continent.

In August, former cricket star and outspoken critic of American imperialism Imran Khan was elected prime minister of Pakistan, assuming political control of the South Asian nation of 200 million amid controversy over the military’s involvement in the election. In addition to navigating his country’s precarious relationships with the United States and India, Khan spent his first months in office resolving a balance of payments crisis inherited from his predecessor Nawaz Sharif, traveling to China in order to secure a bailout. Islamabad's economic relationship with Beijing is dominated by the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a $50 billion-worth series of investments that forms a major cog in China's sweeping Belt and Road Initiative.

In Malaysia, where an enormous corruption scandal tarnished the reputation of President Najib Razak, voters turned to a familiar face to replace him: Mahathir Mohamad, the country’s leader from 1981 to 2003. The 93-year-old Mohamad, the world’s oldest leader, canceled two major Chinese-funded infrastructure projects in August, citing Malaysia's unwillingness to accept so much debt. “We must live within our means,” he told an Asia Society crowd in September.

In November, voters in Taiwan delivered a stinging rebuke to the pro-independent Democratic Progressive Party in municipal elections across the country, forcing President Tsai Ing-wen to step down as party leader. The election focused primarily on domestic issues — but according to two U.S. Senators, China launched a propaganda campaign aimed at spreading false news about Tsai, undermining her standing among Taiwanese voters and positioning the Kuomintang, a party which supports closer ties with Beijing, to reassume the presidency in 2020.

But a surprise election result in the Maldives, an Indian Ocean archipelago, illustrated the limits of China's reach. In September, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih ousted incumbent Abdulla Yameen, who had drawn the country closer to China during his tenure. Solih's victory does not mean that the Maldives will turn away from China completely — but it does mean that Male will likely be less willing to accept Beijing financing for infrastructure projects going forward.

Learn more:

4 Questions: Pakistan's Future Under Imran Khan
Malaysian PM Criticizes Previous Government's Excessive Borrowing



A Thai Cave Rescue Inspires the World

A rescuer at Thailand's Tham Luang cave complex smiles during an operation to rescue 12 boys and their soccer coach.
The successful rescue of 12 Thai boys and their soccer coach was one of 2018's most inspiring stories. (Linh Pham/Getty Images)

And finally, 2018 did include one bit of unvarnished good news. When 12 Thai boys and their soccer coach became trapped in the Tham Luang cave complex in June, there was little hope for their rescue. But over the course of 18 days, an international team braved monsoon rains and narrow passageways to locate the stranded, who had kept themselves alive against remarkable odds. A rescuer died — but the boys and their coach all survived, and were released from the hospital just two weeks later.

In October, one of the boys, their coach, and the governor of Chiang Rai, the man who coordinated a rescue operation involving thousands of people, traveled to the United States for the first time to be honored at Asia Society’s fifth annual Asia Game Changer Awards. Upon accepting the award on behalf of the delegation, governor Naronsak Osatanakorn said that he hoped the experience would inspire people to start living for others. "That would be a game changer for the world," he said.

Learn More:

Asia Society Honors Indra Nooyi and Other Inspiring Game Changers in Dazzling Ceremony

Also in 2018: Sri Lanka's government survived a real-life Game of Thrones episode, Facebook was rebuked for the spread of fake news in Myanmar, India instituted net neutrality, and China clamped down on civil society and foreign correspondence. For a complete look of how Asia Society covered Asia in 2018, check out the Asia Blog archives and peruse our video gallery.

About the Author

Profile picture for user Matt Schiavenza

Matt Schiavenza is the Assistant Director of Content at Asia Society. His work has appeared at The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, The New Republic, Fortune, and strategy + business among other publications.