Looking to 2020: The global outlook for the year

The glittering skyline of Ho Chi Minh City demonstrates the continued strong growth of Asia, which will be a bright spot for 2020

| By Professor Tommy Koh |

What is the outlook for 2020? I think it will be a mixture of sunny days and stormy weather. I see both positive and negative developments and trends in the New Year. I will begin with the three positive trends and developments.

Rise of Asia

First, the steady rise of Asia will continue in 2020. Asia is a very bright spot in the world economy. In 2020, China will grow at about 6 per cent, which is 3 times faster than the US and 5 times faster than the EU. China will continue to be an engine of growth of the world economy.

Another bright spot in the world economy is ASEAN. The 10 economies are growing at an average annual rate of 5 per cent. Collectively, the ASEAN economy is already the fifth largest in the world and will very likely to be the fourth by 2030.

Japan and South Korea are mature economies. We cannot expect them to grow at the rates of the developing countries. Nevertheless, Japan is the world’s third largest economy and an important source of innovation and creativity. South Korea is the world’s 12th largest economy and has produced global champions, such as, Samsung. South Korea’s music, television, movies and cuisine have been embraced by the world.

No Retreat From Free Trade and Multilateralism

There is a contest in the world between free trade and protectionism, between unilateralism and multilateralism, between globalisation and economic nationalism and between the rule of law and the rule that might is right.

The good news is that most of the countries of Asia, Europe, Africa and Latin-American have not followed the United States. Instead, they continue to uphold free trade and regional economic integration, for example, by concluding the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. They continue to support the Paris Agreement on climate change. They continue to support the Iran nuclear accord.

Empowerment of Women

The third good news is that, after centuries of struggle, the quest by women for equality and justice, is unstoppable. The struggle will continue until women are treated as first class citizens, and not as second class citizens, in every country in the world. Violence against women will not be tolerated. The sexual harassment of women, by powerful men, will no longer be protected by silence and fear. Women will stand up for their rights.

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The ongoing bushfires in Australia provide a stark reminder of the environmental crises facing humanity

Caution over US-China Ties

The first negative trend is the relationship between China and the United States. The partial trade agreement, which will be signed in January 2020, is not a paradigm shift.

The United States and China are engaged in a long-term contest for power and influence. The US policy is to prevent China from becoming a superpower. The US policy is to prevent China from dominating the high technology industries by 2025. The US policy is to decouple the two economies. The US policy is to prevent China from making East Asia a Chinese sphere of influence. The US policy is to maintain its role as the global hegemon and to prevent China from usurping the role.

Environmental Crises

The second negative trend is the continuation of the three environmental crises which we face: (a) global warming and climate change; (b) the massive extinction of biodiversity; and (c) the warming and acidification of the world’s oceans.

We know what we must do but we are unable to summon the political will to do it. Although we face a climate emergency, the governments of the world continue to put their short-term interests over their long-term interests. The pledges they have made, under the Paris Agreement are not sufficient to enable us to achieve the target, of capping the increase in global temperature to below 2 degrees centigrade. The recent meeting in Madrid was considered a failure by the UN.

Protest Movements Worldwide

The third negative development is the sudden eruption of mass protests in difference parts of the worlds, including, France, Peru, Lebanon and Iran. What do these protests movements have in common? The peoples in these countries are protesting against the high cost of living, against inequality and against a system which they perceive to be rigged against them. There is a loss of trust in government and in the market. The ordinary people of those countries feel that the system works for the benefit of the elite but not for the ordinary people.

I do not include Hong Kong in this group because the objectives of the protest movement there are primarily political and not socio-economic. But we cannot be complacent. All the ingredients are present in Asia: high cost of living, great inequality and a growing gap between the elite and the rest of society.


In conclusion, I would expect 2020 to be a mixed year. However, I believe that the positive will outweigh the negative. On the whole, the world is becoming more peaceful, more prosperous and more equal.


About the author

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Professor Tommy Koh is Professor at NUS Law, and the Rector of NUS Tembusu College. He is also Ambassador-at-Large at Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Chairman of the Centre for International Law of NUS; and Special Advisor of the Institute of Policy Studies at NUS. A veteran diplomat and academic, Prof Koh’s former roles include being Dean of NUS Law (1971-1974), Singapore's Permanent Representative to the United Nations (1968-1971 and 1974-1984), and Singapore’s Chief Negotiator for the US-Singapore Free Trade Agreement (2000-2003).



Looking to 2020 is a series of commentaries on what readers can expect in the new year. This is the first installment of the series. 


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