The world in 2020: what to expect

As the new year dawns, our correspondents take a look at the issues to watch around the world.

United States

The biggest story in America – and probably the planet – next year will be the 2020 presidential election. Donald Trump's victory in 2016 came as a cataclysmic shock for people in the US and around the world. If Trump loses next November, many will write him off as a fluke and an aberration. If he wins again, it will entrench his polarising brand of right-wing populism as the new normal for conservative politics. Emboldened by a second victory and unencumbered by the need to win re-election, Trump will have even more freedom to smash the norms of policy-making and presidential rhetoric. Four more years in office would also allow him to continue to pack the US courts with conservative judges who will be making critical decisions long after he leaves office.

A supporter gives a thumbs-up as she waits to see the motorcade carrying US President Donald Trump pass by on his way to Mar-a-Largo.Credit:AP

First, though, he needs an opponent. Will it be Joe Biden, the ageing former vice president who remains beloved by the party's African-American base? Or will it be Pete Buttigieg, a gay small-town mayor who had no national profile this time last year? A victory by Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren would represent the party's most dramatic shift to the left in living memory. Trump's approval ratings remain historically low, and Democratic turnout is sure to be high. But if the US economy continues to hum along he has a compelling case for re-election. America's unique electoral college system also works to his advantage: states in the Midwest, where Trump-friendly white working-class voters are over-represented, are likely to decide the election. Take a deep breath now: it's going to be a wild year.

Matthew Knott, US correspondent


After all the huffing, puffing and stuffing around, it's finally happening: the United Kingdom is leaving the European Union.

Brexit will take place by January 31, setting the clock on a frantic 11-month mission to stitch together a trade, security and migration pact with the EU that will take effect once the formal "transition" period ends in December.

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson addresses British soldiers after serving Christmas lunch to troops stationed in Estonia. He will lead the UK out of the EU this year.Credit:AP

Trade negotiations are notoriously slow and complex, and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson may have trouble ratifying a new agreement. The stakes are high because by law, the UK must leave the EU by the end of 2020. With an extension not possible, there is a real risk that Britain and the EU could experience the hardest of divorces.

In Germany, the Angela Merkel era is coming to an end and Europe's other most high-profile figure, France's Emmanuel Macron, is in for a rocky year after losing his sparkle among French voters and European leaders.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, centre, with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, left, and French President Emmanuel Macron in early December.Credit:AP

Finally, 2020 may deliver some sense of justice for the 38 Australians blown out of the skies above Ukraine while on board Malaysia Airlines flight MH17. Four people will go on trial over the 2014 atrocity. It's a start, but don't expect the fallout to have any impact in Moscow, where ultimate responsibility for the mass murder really rests.

Bevan Shields, Europe correspondent


Hong Kong protests, detention of Uighurs in Xinjiang and the rise of a superpower. How does Australia manage its relationship with China amid the most turbulent period between the two countries in decades?

This will be a fundamental test of the diplomatic abilities of both Canberra and Beijing over the next year.

A Hong Kong protester shows support for Uighurs and their fight for human rights.Credit:AP

Australia has no intention of backing down on its criticism of China’s treatment of the Uighurs Muslim minority or advocating for a peaceful solution to protests in Hong Kong, but it must balance these concerns with the reality that China is Australia’s largest trading partner and a rising superpower that is increasingly assertive in its alternative world view.

A failure will leave the Morrison government once again without an invitation to Beijing, expose Australia to economic retaliation and, short of a meaningful avenue to take up its human rights concerns which dominated 2019, will continue to draw attention in 2020.

Hong Kongers, buoyed by a landslide victory for pro-democracy candidates in local coun0cil elections last November, are likely to target the legislative council elections in September. While violent clashes have reduced ahead of Chinese New Year this month, they are expected to ramp up again for what is likely to be the most important legislative election in a generation.

Across the strait in Taiwan, election season is already in full swing. The January 11 poll will be the first major test of the spillover effect from Hong Kong’s unrest.

White-collar workers in both Taipei and Kowloon have found a once-unlikely common cause with the Uighurs of Xinjiang. They fear reports of surveillance and detention camps on the remote western side of China could become a new reality in their metropolises.

The question is in pursuit of human rights solutions, how far will western powers want to push a Chinese Communist Party that has expanded its diplomatic and military power? As its arsenal grows, so too does its ambition.

Beyond the South-China Sea, Australia’s neighbourhood in the Pacific is now its frontier.

– Eryk Bagshaw, China correspondent

South-east Asia

China will consolidate its growing economic, political and military influence on individual nations in south-east Asia in 2020. Rather than a collective response, each nation in south-east Asia will attempt to deal with the superpower in its own way. A toothless ASEAN, bound by the principle of non-interference, will muddle along, issuing communiques that don’t amount to much and the United States, distracted by a presidential election, will be not much help as a strategic counter-weight.

In Indonesia, expect President Joko Widodo to continue his laser-like focus on economic development and infrastructure projects, even as his political rivals and members of his own party begin manoeuvring for the presidential nomination in 2024. Jokowi, as he is widely known, looks increasingly weak and the oligarchs and businessmen who mostly run Indonesia are reasserting their control of the political system. Ensuring that a directly elected president remains a feature of the political system shapes as a major fight for the president. Three other things to look out for: Indonesia to go backwards in the fight against corruption, now that the much-respected anti-corruption commission has been weakened; the construction of the new capital on the island of Borneo to fall behind schedule; and a broader crackdown on radical Islamists to continue, and for more terror attacks to be carried out in response.

In Malaysia, the guessing game over when – or whether – 94-year-old Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad relinquishes power will be a major focus throughout the year. It’s unlikely he’ll step aside before the end-of-year APEC meeting in Kuala Lumpur – Mahathir told us as much in a recent interview. But the parlour games over whether Anwar Ibrahim will finally become PM, as promised, or whether the younger Azmin Ali will step up, will continue to distract the government.

Meanwhile, the long, recondite trials of former prime minister Najib Razak will go on as Mahathir’s government continues to attempt to recover some of the money lost in the 1MDB wealth fund scandal.

Mahathir Mohamad told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age he was hoped to eradicate the death penalty in Malaysia.Credit:James Massola

Thailand’s carefully stage-managed “return to democracy” in 2019 was anything but, with a questionable new electoral system allowing former general Prayut Chan-o-cha to cobble together a coalition government, with him as prime minister. Opposition groups, such as the newish Future Forward party, will continue to be targeted and political freedoms will remain limited. Economic growth, which is slowing, remains key to political stability for Prayut.

The Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte will continue to dominate the political landscape in his country, though with presidents limited to a six-year stint and a poll due in May 2022, speculation will begin to heat up about his successor. The hugely controversial Duterte, who has led a bloody drug war, cracked down on media opponents and moved the country out of the US’ orbit of influence and closer to China, remains very popular with voters.

Supporters line up to welcome Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi back from the Netherlands where she was defending her country from charges of genocide.Credit:AP

In Myanmar, the fall-out from the treatment of the Rohingya people will grow. More than a million Rohingya have been expelled to Bangladesh by the military-backed government led by Aung San Suu Kyi and there is no resolution – such as allowing the Rohingya back into the country and granting them citizenship – in sight.

In Cambodia, Hun Sen’s embrace of China and his persecution of political opponents, such as opposition leaders Kem Sokha and Sam Rainsy, will continue. The strongman ruler, in power since 1985, relies heavily on China for financial capital and political muscle – but he is well aware that ordinary Khmers are increasingly unhappy with the free-for-all of Chinse investment he has allowed. If the EU winds back the preferential treatment it gives to Cambodian industry exports – a decision is due in February – it will spell bad news for the domestic economy.

Vietnam will keep any form of dissent or political division in check, will continue to benefit economically from the flow out of China of US-owned factories, which are relocating to the south-east Asian country. It will likely also remain an outlier in the region, in blocking China’s participation in the construction of a 5G network. It will also continue to quietly embrace the western security umbrella in the region, as China continues to claim contested waters in the South China Sea.

James Massola, South-east Asia correspondent

Middle East

Let's hope the attack on Aramco's oil facility in Saudi Arabia and tit-for-tat capturing of oil tankers by Iran and the British were the peak of a dispute rather than portents of a greater confrontation. With the US, Britain and Australia ramping up naval patrols in the Strait of Hormuz, and oil-import-dependent Japan doing the same in the Gulf of Oman, the next confrontation could be far more serious. But unless there's a major outbreak of conflict, don't fret about the price of fuel at the bowser. A high oil price will benefit Iran's economy too much for its rivals to let that happen.

Behind the international arm wrestle, diplomatic efforts to secure the release of University of Melbourne researcher Kylie Moore-Gilbert from Tehran's insect-infested Evin prison must be intensified, following revelations she is undertaking a succession of hunger strikes as her only means of fighting for humane conditions such as contact with family and reprieve from solitary confinement. She has been sentenced to 10 years on espionage charges and an appeal proved fruitless. Recent US success in negotiating prisoner swaps with Iran, such as the release of Xiyue Wang, should offer encouragement but after more than a year in captivity, there is no public indication of an early release.

Gathering unrest in neighbouring Iraq threatens to further scar an already divided and wounded nation. Violent protests continue to strangle the nation as Shia and Sunni groups struggle to fill a power vacuum created by the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi. It will provide a tragic backdrop for a proxy war between the US and Russia and their respective allies in the region.

Kirsty Rosse-Emile, 25, holding her two-month-old son Yahya, the youngest Australian baby in al-Hawl camp in Syria in October. Credit:Kate Geraghty

Likewise in Syria, where there are even more actors to consider in a conflict with more heads than a hydra. The world will be watching closely to see the aftermath of Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's offensive in northern Syria and whether an uneasy truce holds with Syrian government forces, their Russian backers, the Turks and the Kurds. In north-west Syria, no such peace exists. Turkish-backed forces are in open warfare with Syrian government forces, backed by Russia. Like Iran, there are Australian lives at stake behind this conflict between nations and their proxies. Reporters Michael Bachelard and Kate Geraghty travelled to Syria in October where they visited a group of Australian women and children detained in the Kurdish-controlled camp for their affiliations with Islamic State fighters. Currently, those women and children are enduring overnight low temperatures close to zero. They want the Australian government to bring them home, as other governments for their citizens in the camp.

The situation in Syria escalated following a partial withdrawal by US troops. With reports of a pending peace agreement between the Taliban and US forces in Afghanistan, we will soon find out what will happen in that country when the Americans call time on their 18-year military engagement.

Patrick Elligett, World Editor

Latin America

South and Central America and Mexico, in North America, featured in global headlines a lot in 2019 for reasons each country would probably prefer to have avoided.

The political crisis that began with a public transport price hike in Chile and developed into persistent and violent protests against austerity measures has not yet concluded. Considered one of the most stable countries in South America, Chile's reputation and economy is on the line. A planned referendum in 2020 to amend the Pinochet-era constitution may go some way to appease social unrest, but protesters have shown they will not desist unless there are tangible improvements in basic services, education, healthcare and democratic processes.

Anti-government demonstrators throw rocks at a police water canon trying to disperse them in Santiago, Chile, on Friday.Credit:AP

Venezuela's political stalemate continues into the new year, with no resolution to the leadership crisis that saw Juan Guaido, the president of the National Assembly, declare himself interim leader in 2019 to replace Nicolas Maduro whom Guaido says was fraudulently elected. Despite nationwide protests and support from dozens of countries, including its neighbours and the US, Maduro is still at the helm, the country is still suffering from economic and political mismanagement and Venezuelans continue to seek asylum across borders in their thousands. Fears of an American-led military intervention have decreased somewhat, but a solution is still wanting.

Bolivia's leftist president Evo Morales ended the year in asylum in Argentina after being given shelter by Mexico as he was chased out by a popular uprising. The country is still in upheaval and Morales says he plans to stay involved in politics, but interim president Jeanine Anez has promised democratic elections and to chase Morales' loyalists for electoral fraud or other crimes.

Brazil's far-right President Jair Bolsonaro is likely to continue his Trump-like Twitter pronouncements to hog headlines in 2020 while carrying on with his reform agenda. While the environment, arts and education may suffer further under his rule (another dry season in the Amazon would lead to more deliberately-lit fires), the economy is showing signs of recovery with improved foreign investment, record real estate prices and healthy full-time job creation numbers. Those improvements coupled with veiled threats of a return to dictatorship-era security measures, are likely to keep Brazilian streets largely off the protest map.

Crises in Ecuador, Nicaragua and Colombia also remain to be resolved this year, while in Argentina the recent return of a leftist government led by Peronistas, may keep it from major world headlines.

Trade-wise, Latin America is keen to do more business with Australia in 2020 and it will be up to Foreign Minister Marise Payne to fill the gap left by Julie Bishop whom countries in the region felt understood its potential well. Already, the Peru-Australia Free Trade Agreement will enter into force on February 11.

Australia will also be keeping an eye on China's inroads into Latin America where it is investing heavily in ports and infrastructure to future-proof its commodities and food supplies.

– Lia Timson, Deputy World Editor

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