By Nikkei staff writers
Vaccines, variants, lockdowns — much of the news this year has been dominated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. In Asia, however, the coronavirus has at times been overshadowed by political turmoil in areas such as Afghanistan and Myanmar, supply chain disruptions, energy shocks, and the Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games. The Nikkei Asia team has worked hard to cover the highs and lows of 2021 and make sure that you, our valued readers, were well-informed.
As this year draws to a close, we decided to turn the tables and ask you to predict what’s to come in 2022. In early December, we sent out a survey, asking our readers to forecast what next year will bring for Asian politics, business, sports and more. 800 of you responded. In this final Big Story of 2021, we summarize your predictions alongside expert commentary from Nikkei reporters and editors.
A note from the editor-in-chief
The darkest hour is just before dawn. To me, this proverb aptly describes the situation we find ourselves in at the end of 2021. The harsh reality is that we are still in the dark. The omicron variant of the coronavirus is surging, and newly confirmed cases in such countries as the U.K. and South Korea are hitting their highest numbers since the pandemic first broke out. As a responsible member of the media, our duty is to alert the public to any potential risks, and to urge our readers to be as cautious as possible. We have also stressed the importance of distributing vaccines to poorer nations to minimize the emergence of deadlier variants.
Despite the persistent headwinds, I detect a growing air of optimism, or a tidal change, in Asia. This is not merely an irrational, misplaced hope — this optimism is supported by facts and figures. First, the majority of people have already been vaccinated. According to Our World in Data, 66% of the Asian population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and, among them, 55% are fully vaccinated. Second, we have been deepening our understanding of the mechanism by which the virus spreads. Scientists are now able to rapidly sequence the genetic information of the virus, and that critical data is being shared across the globe by governments and researchers. Third, thanks to these two positive developments, the virus appears to have become less deadly. Daily new deaths per 1 million people in Asia is 0.26. Seven months ago, on May 21, the number peaked at 1.22.
It is truly our privilege to offer you, our readers, the first annual “Your predictions for the coming year.” This is a collaborative effort between you and our newsroom. Through the process of creating this forecast, I hope you feel a sense of being a member of the Nikkei Asia community.
To the first question, about your predictions on the number of new COVID-19 infections, two-thirds of our readers expect a decrease. Considering this relative optimism, it is no surprise that three-quarters of our readers predict that supply-chain disruptions will also ease in 2022.
The glow of optimism over Asia extends to the areas of music and sports, as well. The song “Butter” by South Korean pop supergroup BTS scored a nomination for the upcoming Grammy Awards, just as their hit “Dynamite” did for the awards this year. Going back almost two decades, South Korea’s national soccer team stormed to the semifinals of the 2002 FIFA World Cup tournament, co-hosted by Japan and South Korea, becoming the first Asian squad to make it that far on the sport’s biggest stage. Next Year’s World Cup will be held in Qatar. While playing in the Middle East might present new challenges for some teams, Asian squads are relatively accustomed to playing there and could therefore have something of a home-field advantage. Could a team from Asia come away with the trophy?
Probably not, but unexpected outcomes are part of the sport’s deep appeal.
Considering the region’s trajectory, it would not be surprising if Asian talent shines in 2022. And after two years of living in the shadow of fear and frustration, we are eager for a brighter future.
If you asked me to make what I thought was a rock-solid prediction, I would humbly submit that 2022 will be remembered as the year Chinese President Xi Jinping further solidified his grip on power and became chairman of the Chinese Communist Party. This view is supported by a surprising 85% of readers who took our survey.
Every five years, the CCP holds its National Congress. The date for the 2022 congress has not been fixed, but October is typically when the gathering is held. It should also be noted that another Congress — that of the U.S. — has a midterm election on Nov. 8. Joe Biden’s Democrats are quite likely to lose and head into a lame-duck period.
Political leaders often create an external enemy to avoid criticism over domestic problems. With Biden possibly on the defensive, Sino-American relations can thus be expected to grow more fraught, and the U.S. president will define the confrontation as authoritarianism vs. democracy. Biden will no doubt brand Vladimir Putin’s Russia as an authoritarian state.
A silver lining can be seen glimmering amid the gloom, but the world that emerges from this darkness might be chillier than the one in which we now reside. A new Cold War between China and the U.S. will likely dominate the post-COVID world. As the optimism over our prospects for overcoming the pandemic builds, so too will the tension from the grim confrontation between two superpowers. That will be the world in 2022, as seen through my crystal ball.
SHIGESABURO OKUMURA, Nikkei Asia Editor-in-chief
Question 1: Will the number of new COVID-19 infections worldwide be lower in 2022 than in 2021?
You said: Yes
Grace Li, Nikkei staff writer, says:
According to the World Health Organization, omicron, which has been declared the latest variant of concern, has spread to 89 countries as of Dec. 16; the number of cases doubles every 1.5 to 3 days in countries with community transmission.
The key to a solution is how we can prevent the high number of cases from translating into a high number of deaths. Across Europe, governments are tightening measures again to relieve the pressure on their health care systems. In Asia, countries like Japan and South Korea are reversing their opening-up policies by strengthening border restrictions.
Scientists advocate a booster dose of the vaccine for helping to reduce infections, but many underdeveloped countries are still struggling to secure enough doses for the first two shots. If the emergence of omicron tells us anything, it is that new and more dangerous variants could arise anytime unless we get all the world’s population vaccinated.
So, there probably will be more COVID-19 cases in 2022. But if countries can work together to ensure equal access to vaccines, we can largely reduce the damage from the pandemic and get to the stage where we can safely live with the virus.
Question 2: Will Asia see more female heads of state and government in 2022 than in 2021?
You said: No
Alice French, Nikkei Asia deputy Big Story editor, says:
In Asia, 2021 draws to a close with no more female heads of state and government than it began with. The Asia-Pacific region’s total stands at a steady four: New Zealand’s Jacinda Adern, Nepal’s Bidhya Devi Bhandari, Singapore’s Halimah Yacob and Bangladesh’s Sheikh Hasina. Hong Kong’s Carrie Lam and Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen also remain examples of women in positions of political power in the region.
In 2022, Leni Robredo in the Philippines and Sim Sang-jung in South Korea will be hoping to join this list. They are both the sole female candidates in their respective countries’ upcoming presidential elections.
South Korea’s election will take place on March 9, where Sang-jung will be hoping for victory as candidate for the Justice Party. Considered one of the most left-wing of the presidential hopefuls, Sang-jung pledges to introduce a four-day working week and do away with South Korea’s long-standing two party political system if she is elected.
But the two-party system will make it difficult for Sang-jung to get a look-in at the polls. The presidential race is shaping up to be a two-horse competition between Lee Jae-myung of current President Moon Jae-in’s Democratic Party and Yoon Seok-youl of the opposing People Power Party, with Yoon currently the front-runner according to Realmeter’s weekly tracking poll. Both men have previously revealed themselves to be anti-feminist.
Robredo, who is running to be president of the Philippines on May 9, might be in a better position. She has been vice president since 2016 but has enjoyed a recent surge in popularity due to the public’s frustrations over President Rodrigo Duterte’s mishandling of the pandemic. While Duterte struggled with one of Asia’s highest COVID-19 death tolls against a backdrop of corruption scandals, Robredo was traveling up and down the country, directly addressing people in need.
It is too early yet to predict the outcome of May’s election, but Robredo’s progressive approach — she promises to get rid of “old, rotten politics” — has been a hit, especially with young Filipinos. Robredo’s fans can be seen nationwide donning pink face masks, a nod to the official color of her Liberal Party, and on Dec. 4, pink-clad cyclists filled the streets of Iloilo City as part of a ‘Ride with Robredo’ rally. A late-October survey by Social Weather Stations placed her second behind former Sen. Ferdinand Marcos Jr.
Only time will tell whether or not 2022 will welcome any new female leaders, but with the United Nations predicting that it will currently take 130 years to reach gender equality at the highest positions of power, any signs of female political empowerment in Asia will be welcomed.
Question 3: Will the price of WTI crude oil exceed $150 in 2022?
You said: No
Mitsuru Obe, Nikkei staff writer, says:
Amid global commodity price inflation this year, there is a creeping fear of a revisit by the 2008 oil price spike caused by rising demand. This time, it is being caused by falling supply amid a global shift away from fossil fuels.
The International Energy Agency says oil fields need investment just to keep output constant. Without investment, output would fall 8% to 9% per year.
But oil companies have little appetite for investment, which typically takes a long time. Investors, who used to provide cheap credit, are also hesitant. This has set the stage for a potential shortfall.
“Notwithstanding the oil price recovery in 2021, capital expenditure does not seem to be increasing,” analysts at Morgan Stanley point out. The capex level already assumes a shift to net-zero carbon emissions, but “actual oil and gas demand looks nothing like it.”
The risk of an oil shortfall would grow as underinvestment accumulates over time, warns Tatsufumi Okoshi, a commodity market economist at Nomura. “The possibility [of a rise to $150 per barrel] is not high, but there is a risk.”
That oil demand is in a long-term decline is a widely shared view. About 70% of oil consumption is for transportation, with the automobile guzzling much of this, and automakers are accelerating a shift to electric vehicles toward 2030. The lack of support on the demand side is likely to mean that any spike would be transitory, Nomura’s Okoshi predicts.
Question 4: Will Fumio Kishida still be Japan’s prime minister by the end of 2022?
You said: Yes
Manabu Kame, Nikkei staff writer, says:
Japan’s biggest political event in 2022 will be the upper house elections, expected to be held on July 10.
Upper house elections are not directly linked to the selection of Japan’s prime minister. In the past, however, many cabinets have collapsed because of how such voting turned out. For Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to stay in office, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner Komeito will need to maintain a majority of the seats in the house.
To retain their combined majority in the chamber, the LDP and Komeito will need to win 55 of the 125 seats to be contested. As the coalition currently holds 69 of the seats up for grabs, the alliance can afford to lose up to 14.
The Kishida cabinet, formed in October, got off to a smooth start. Its approval rating rose to as high as 65% this month, according to Nikkei polls. To maintain the trend, the cabinet needs to contain the spread of COVID-19.
The average number of new infections in Tokyo has remained low this month, at about 20 per day. The fate of the Kishida cabinet will be greatly affected by, among other factors, whether booster shots can quickly and smoothly be delivered. Whether oral anti-COVID drugs are widely available will also play a part in how voters perceive Kishida’s cabinet.
Containing infections will give Japan’s economy an opportunity to rebound. Apart from taming the virus, Kishida is pushing for wage increases to help Japan realize some of its growth potential. He has stressed the need for a “favorable cycle of growth and wealth distribution,” knowing that his coalition will face an uphill electoral battle if a wave of infections slows the normalization of economic activity.
If the ruling coalition wins the upper house, Kishida will not have to face voters for another three years, as the alliance in October won a lower house election under his leadership. If he enjoys a strong showing at the polls this coming summer, the prime minister will be able to focus on diplomatic and other policy challenges.
Question 5: Will an Asian artist win a Grammy Award in 2022?
You said: Yes
Jada Nagumo, Nikkei staff writer, says:
Music’s biggest night will be Jan. 31, when artists, producers and engineers will compete for trophies at the 64th Grammy Awards. Nominations are out for the annual ceremony and in 2022 there will be a total of 86 categories, including the four biggest: Album of the Year, Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best New Artist.
The lack of Asian representation in the Western music scene has been a topic of discussion for some years, which is why BTS’s latest nomination has excited many fans.
Under the Best Pop Duo/Group Performance category, the South Korean septet secured its second Grammy nomination with megahit single “Butter.” The summer song achieved massive success and was a chartbuster on YouTube, Billboard and Spotify. It spent 10 weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
Despite tough competition, the K-pop group might have the odds in its favor this time. One encouraging sign came in November, when BTS became the first Asian act to win “Artist of the Year” at the American Music Awards.
BTS last year became the first K-pop act to receive a Grammy nomination, which came in the same category, for its single “Dynamite.” The group lost the award to Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande.
While a Grammy would be a huge milestone for the group, carrying the potential to open doors for more Asian artists to be recognized, it seems like the Western market still has a long way to go. Despite being a global sensation, BTS was able to score only one nod and was excluded from bigger categories like record and song of the year.
Question 6: Will Chinese leader Xi Jinping receive the title of “Chairman” (the first leader to do so since Mao Zedong) at the 20th Party Congress in 2022?
You said: Yes
Tsukasa Hadano, Nikkei staff writer, says:
There is a good chance Xi Jinping, the Chinese Communist Party’s general secretary, will assume the post of party chairman, famously held by founding father Mao Zedong until his death, in 2022.
Xi is making careful preparations to revise the party’s constitution so he can revive the post. By further concentrating power, he is seeking to pave the way to become a top leader for life.
There was speculation about the post being restored at the party’s last National Congress, in 2017, as well. Three rules enshrined in the party’s constitution were the biggest hurdles, party sources say. The three rules are: no personality cults, no lifelong terms for leading officials and no wavering from the collective leadership system. They were incorporated into the party’s constitution as part of former supreme leader Deng Xiaoping’s initiative to prevent a repeat of the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution, which was launched by Mao and plunged China into upheaval.
Through Deng’s initiative, the party adopted its second resolution on history in 1981 and then revised its constitution in 1982, abolishing the post of chairman. A party resolution on history carries great significance as it lays the groundwork for the party’s system and future policies.
The third resolution on history was adopted last month. It does not inherit from the second resolution the three rules that had been considered the biggest hurdles to reviving the post of chairman. Most of the third resolution is devoted to Xi’s achievements, while the amount of space devoted to Deng is minuscule. It seems to reflect Xi’s intention to reverse Deng’s policies and strategically move toward revising the party’s constitution.
The erstwhile post of party chairman used to be stipulated in China’s constitution as well. Now, however, party rules are stipulated in the party’s constitution, with matters related to China’s parliament, government and judiciary being stipulated in the national constitution. The undercurrent felt by some China hands is that Xi might later significantly restructure the political system by revising the national and party constitutions into a more integrated system.
So, all signs seem to be pointing toward Xi Jinping assuming the post of Chinese Communist Party chairman, but we will have to wait for the outcome of the National Congress in late 2022 to find out for sure.
Question 7: Will North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visit the U.S. in 2022?
You said: No
Gabriela Bernal, contributing writer, says:
With practically no diplomatic progress made between the U.S. and North Korea since the Hanoi summit of February 2019, it’s difficult to imagine Kim Jong Un visiting the U.S. in 2022.
President Biden has not made North Korea a priority, and relations between the nations remain tense. Even though North Korea test-fired multiple missiles throughout the pandemic, these tactics failed to push Washington back to the negotiating table.
Besides stalled diplomacy, another key issue remains the ongoing pandemic. Already referred to as the “hermit kingdom,” North Korea has been in full-on isolation mode since January 2020. The country is completely locked down, and Kim has made significantly fewer public appearances compared to before the start of the pandemic. With the country’s borders with China still officially closed, it is very unlikely that Kim will take the risk of going abroad any time soon.
Another important variable is the upcoming presidential election in South Korea. Depending on that outcome, diplomacy between the U.S. and North Korea could either improve or become significantly less likely to go smoothly for the foreseeable future.
Question 8: Will disruptions to the supply chain improve in 2022 (rather than worsen)?
You said: Yes
Cheng Ting Fang and Lauly Li, Nikkei staff writers, say:
In the tech supply chain, most executives expect the chips and component constraints to extend into 2022, as there is no massive additional capacity that will be ready before the end of 2022.
But the supplies of some of the chips and components have been significantly improving since last month. Apple, for instance, has asked suppliers to re-accelerate production until around Chinese New Year, in an attempt to meet production targets previously missed due to supply constraints.
However, the improvement in supply levels is not coming from renewed capacity but from slowing demand for other products. The effect is that supplies are being released to the market. Some in the industry are wary that the worst-case scenario would be overall consumer demand softening just as the supply crunch eases, which could cause near-term corrections. The looming risks of inflation is another tech industry concern.
Meanwhile, the severe congestion in ports in Asia, Europe and the Americas continues to disrupt supply chains and is likely to continue before improving in late 2022.
Looking at the long-term, the tech industry remains optimistic. Suppliers are looking forward to expected booms in electric vehicles, 5G, artificial intelligence and high-performance computing, as well as to the blossoming of the metaverse, even though industry players say short-term supply chain and logistics headaches are raising costs and eroding margins.
Question 9: Will an Asian country reach the quarterfinals of the 2022 Football World Cup?
You said: No
Andrew Sharp, Nikkei Asia deputy politics and economics editor, says:
The usual suspects — Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Iran — are in the driver’s seat to qualify from Asia for next year’s FIFA World Cup, which begins in Qatar in November. But with many of the teams showing patchy form, they are all outside the top 16 favorites in British bookmaker odds.
It is unlikely that the tournament will see a run like South Korea’s to the semifinals in 2002. But host Qatar, winner of the Asian Cup in 2019, appears to have the best chance of progressing deep into the knockout stage.
Ben Mabley, a British football commentator in Japan, says that while the overall level of Asian soccer has improved in recent years, it has yet to translate into success on the global stage.
“Japan should theoretically be stronger than ever, with players in every position holding their own in Europe,” Mabley told Nikkei Asia, “but the national team has yet to push on to the same degree as its personnel.
“The World Cup is a knockout tournament for the main and thus anything can happen, but I don’t think the Asian sides are yet any better placed to progress to the last eight than they have been in the past two or three campaigns.”
Question 10: Will any more Asian countries or territories legalize same-sex marriage in 2022?
You said: No
Rurika Imahashi, Nikkei staff writer, says:
According to The Human Rights Campaign Foundation, as of this month, there are 30 countries and regions where same-sex marriage is legal. In 2019, Taiwan became the first country or territory to realize marriage equality in Asia.
Active movements by supporters to follow Taiwan’s lead have emerged in Thailand and Japan. These appear to be the countries to watch in the development of support for marriage equality in Asia next year.
In July 2020, the Thai cabinet approved a draft of the Civil Partnership Bill that would make same-sex marriage legal for the first time in the socially conservative country.
In a major setback for the LGBTQ community, however, the Thai Constitutional Court in November concluded that the current marriage bill, which only recognizes heterosexual relationships, does not go against the constitution.
In Japan, a Sapporo district court in March ruled that the country’s failure to recognize same-sex marriage is unconstitutional, a landmark first verdict on the issue. Multiple plaintiffs have filed lawsuits against the government across the country since Feb. 14, 2019.
An advocacy group leading the series of lawsuits believes the final ruling could be made by the Supreme Court in 2023, after the matter is discussed in each area’s district and high courts.
Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike in December said that the Tokyo Metropolitan Government will recognize same-sex partnerships next year.
However, the political movement in Japan seems slow. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said he has not “reached the point of accepting same-sex marriage” and that legalizing marriage equality would require “prudent consideration.”
The next big issue for Asia in 2022
Aside from the 10 topics listed above, what does 2022 have in store for Asia?
We asked you to predict “the big issue in Asia next year that no one is talking about yet.” Some of the most common responses included China’s relationship with Taiwan, climate change and tourism. Here is a selection of some of the Big Story editors’ favorite predictions from readers:
“Inflation — there are some whisperings here and there, but not enough to be categorized as loud yet. Probably inflation will be a constant topic over the headlines in 2022.” (Anonymous)
“Nobody is talking about the increasing polarization and, in turn, xenophobia (on the basis of race, religion and class) that may impact Asia in the days to come.
Asia has traditionally been a hub for communities to thrive, and cultures have depended on human interactions to flourish. However, as more and more people are forced to stay at home and continue to create tribes online that only support their thoughts, there is less exposure to communities that have diverse thoughts and experiences that would make cultures and societies more tolerant.” (Prasad Bakre, Tokyo)
“The pandemic has highlighted the fact that we are all interlinked, as has been proved scientifically. People will start thinking more about spirituality than before.” (Anonymous)
“An actual war between China and the U.S. over Taiwan” (Anonymous)
“Will Asian nations come together to form a common resolve to fight human trafficking and slavery in 2022?” (Reginald Williams, U.S.)
“The renunciation of war (Article 9) in the constitution of Japan may be amended in 2022 to strengthen Japan’s military capabilities.” (Anonymous)
“International pressure, primarily from Western countries, for Asian nations which produce high levels of greenhouse gas emissions to accept a greater number of climate refugees.” (Andrew Spivey, U.K.)
Thank you to everyone who responded to our predictions survey. We look forward to seeing how these issues play out over the coming 12 months, and covering them in our Big Stories!