1 Past history no indicator of how 2015 will be (Jonathan Eyal in Straits Times) It is clear that 2014 has witnessed some fundamental strategic shifts and surprises, destined to shape our lives for years to come. The first and by far the most important is the end of the post-Cold War period. There was always something odd about the fact that this span of time, which began in 1989 and lasted for the past 25 years, never acquired a name of its own, and was merely generically referred to as a period after a previous period.
But now we know why, for the post-Cold War age was just a lull rather than a new era with solid and durable foundations. Tensions have lingered for years, but it was in 2014 that the eerie calm was shattered, and great-power politics came back with a vengeance. The most spectacular example of this is, of course, Russia, which stormed back on to Europe’s strategic stage with its military intervention in Ukraine.
Another major trend which dominated this year is that of the accelerated internal disintegration of some existing states. The Middle East holds the record, with the vicious civil wars in Lebanon and Syria now joined by those inside Libya and Iraq.
Although Beijing has won the latest confrontation with Hong Kong’s Occupy Central protesters, it is losing Hong Kong. The percentage of Hong Kong residents who identify themselves as primarily Chinese is steadily declining and now stands at only 31 per cent overall, and a mere 8 per cent among the former British colony’s youth. A similar phenomenon is at work in Taiwan where cross-strait relations are now the most polarising and divisive electoral issue.
Hovering above these developments has been the continued eclipse in the strategic footprint and perceived influence of the US. Still, 2015 could well be the year in which the US reclaims its primary global position. The country is certainly well-equipped for it: its economy is emerging from the global economic recession, its technological lead remains undented, the creative vitality of its workforce is legendary and, as the latest revolution in shale oil and natural gas indicates, no other nation on earth has a more favourable energy mix than the US.
In short, the most optimistic conclusion from this year may well be that past performance is not necessarily an indication of the future, that neither the decline of the US nor a replay of the Cold War are as inevitable as they may seem today.
2 Xiaomi is most valuable tech start-up (BBC) Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi has become the world’s most valuable technology start-up just four years after it was founded. The firm raised $1.1bn in its latest round of funding, giving it a valuation of $45bn, which surpassed the $40bn value of taxi booking app Uber.
It has quickly risen to the ranks of the world’s biggest smartphone makers, behind Samsung and Apple in sales. The company is also set to unveil a new flagship device in January. Xiaomi’s strategy of producing cheap smartphones has catapulted its growth to overtake giant Samsung this year in sales in the world’s second largest economy China.
The company’s worth is now more than quadruple the $10bn valuation it received during its last financing round last year. Its skyrocketing valuation comes despite the intellectual property challenges it faced earlier this month in India, where sales were temporarily halted after Swedish firm Ericsson filed a patent complaint. The Beijing-based company has set a target of selling 60 million smartphones this year, up from less than 20 million in 2013.
3 In India, religion bubbles over into politics (San Francisco Chronicle) In small-town northern India, Muslims are offered food and money to convert to Hinduism. If that doesn’t suffice, they say they’re threatened. Across the country, the Christmas holiday is canceled for hundreds of government servants who spend the day publicly extolling the policies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Powerful Hindu nationalist leaders — some with close ties to Modi’s government — say they intend to ensure India becomes a completely Hindu nation.
But Modi himself? He has remained silent as nationalist demands have bubbled over into day-to-day politics, and amid growing fears among minority religious groups of creeping efforts to shunt them aside.
A largely Hindu country that has long proclaimed its multicultural character, India has a sizable Muslim minority, a small Christian community and even smaller pockets of other religions from Judaism to Zoroastrianism.
Modi was catapulted to power on promises to develop India’s economy and root out the corruption and incompetence that had crippled the previous government. But he had launched his political career in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a militant Hindu group that combines religious education with self-defense exercises, and the parent organization of the ruling party. The RSS has long been accused of stoking religious hatred against Muslims.
Just how much Modi actually supports that sprawling agenda — which includes everything from demands to rewrite school textbooks to, at the most extreme end, the expulsion of non-Hindus from India — remains unclear.
Amid the political fracas, major economic legislation stopped cold. That has alienated many who supported Modi for his economic agenda, and who worry that jobs and development will be pushed aside by the demands of the Hindu right. “The ‘cultural right’ is too extreme for the middle-of-the-road voter,” Gurcharan Das, a writer and former businessman, wrote. “Modi has his work cut out — he must assuage the anxieties of the cultural extremists while pursuing his jobs agenda.”