The winners and losers in Asia in 2016

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  • Curtis S. Chin and Jose B. Collazo look at the big winners and losers in Asia in 2016

Curtis S. Chin, a former US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC. Jose B. Collazo is a Southeast Asia analyst and an associate at RiverPeak Group. Follow Curtis on Twitter: @CurtisSChin and Jose: @JoseBCollazo. The views expressed are their own.

(CNN)As the world waits to see what Donald Trump's presidency will bring in 2017, we take one last look at the individuals and trends that dominated Asia's 2016 headlines. For much of the year, China rose, Europe faltered and America slowed. The world's economic and political center continued to shift East.

Curtis Chin
But accepted wisdom may be changing in a year that saw a Korean mobile phone giant stumble, India move against corruption via "demonetization," Thailand say farewell to a revered monarch, and a US President-elect and Taiwan's President talk by phone. Asia is in flux.
Our choice for worst of the year in Asia in 2015 went to "Asia's lungs," as deadly air pollution plagued China, India and Indonesia. In 2016, who was up? And who was down? We review the year that was.

Worst year: The US pivot to Asia

President Barack Obama has the dubious distinction of winning worst year in Asia for a "US pivot to Asia" that had increasingly been seen as more rhetoric than reality even before November's elections.
A central Obama foreign policy initiative, the pivot was described as a strategic rebalance, shifting US diplomatic and military resources to the world's most dynamic economic region. At its economic heart would be an ambitious trade deal -- the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP -- linking 12 Pacific Rim nations that account for around 40% of world trade. The United States, not China, would help "write the rules," Obama declared.
But it was not to be. First, one-time TPP proponent Hillary Clinton turned her back on the deal during the presidential campaign. Trump's election then drove a stake into it. The President-elect has said among his first actions in office will be to withdraw the United States from the TPP in favor of "fair bilateral trade deals."
Oversold, underdelivered and now trumped: The pivot to Asia.

Bad year: South Korean President Park Geun-hye

It has been a bad year for embattled South Korean President Park Geun-hye, who was impeached over a still unfolding scandal that could well have been penned by a Hollywood screenwriter. Allegations of corruption and slush funds mix with tales of cult-like rituals and influence linked to a mysterious, close friend now on trial, Choi Soon-sil, daughter of a deceased religious figure. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets calling for the President's resignation, and lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to impeach Park.
Park barely beats out another contender from South Korea for "bad year" in Asia: Samsung Electronics, for its now discontinued Galaxy Note 7. The smartphone was once seen as a worthy challenger to Apple's iPhone, but any such aspirations for 2016 literally and figuratively went down in flames. Battery problems causing some Galaxy Note 7s to spontaneously combust put the "must have" phone on the "no fly" and then "don't buy" list.

A mixed year: Asia's webizens

When their smartphones did work, increasing mobile adoption and Internet penetration in 2016 gave Asia's webizens the tools to connect and share information and opinions as never before. Unfortunately, for many in Asia, if an increase in freedom of online expression is the metric, the year was mixed at best.
The 2016 Freedom on the Net report by US nongovernmental organization Freedom House rates only two of 15 Asian countries -- Japan and the Philippines -- as having an Internet that is assessed as "free." Webizens were "partly free" in South Korea, India, Singapore, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Cambodia and Bangladesh, and "not free" in Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, China and Pakistan.
From outright censorship or arrest in China to blocked access to social media platforms and communication apps such as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp, to the murder of bloggers in Bangladesh, the power of technology brought new risks to Asia's webizens in 2016.

Good year: Asia's digital disruptors

Amazon's Jeff Bezos may well be a household name in America, but how about Wei Cheng, co-founder and CEO of Didi Chuxing (formerly Didi Kuaidi), the multibillion dollar Chinese ride-sharing app that beat Uber Technologies at its own game in China. In September, Uber surrendered in its costly battle for riders in China and swapped its operations there for a minority stake in Didi Chuxing.
Cheng is an example of Asia's "digital disruptors," who came into their own in 2016. Like Jack Ma of Alibaba Group, these new titans are embracing disruptive business models and leveraging local knowledge and connections to win customers and investments. For them, 2016 was most definitely a good year, even if some are still struggling (as are their Silicon Valley role models), to turn a profit.
With Forrester research projecting the Asia-Pacific e-commerce market to reach $1.4 trillion in 2020, these and other digital disruptors are likely to see many more good years ahead.

Big winner: Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte

Not without controversy, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte tops our list by winning his nation's presidency in a landslide this May and subsequently upending, rethinking and reshaping the state of affairs -- for good or for bad -- at home and abroad.
Since taking office on June 30, the former mayor of Davao City -- dubbed by some commentators as the Philippines' own Donald Trump -- has launched an unsparing, and bloody, war on crime and drugs that has brought mounting human rights criticism and concerns over extrajudicial killings.
The tough-talking leader also has declared a "separation" from the United States, his country's long-term ally, and moved to put aside territorial disputes in favor of business deals with China -- this, despite an international tribunal ruling in the Philippines' favor in July over territories in the South China Sea.
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In early December, the Social Weather Stations survey firm had Duterte enjoying a 77% approval rating as Filipinos continue to put their trust in their controversial President. For now, the Philippine leader's unconventional moves seem a harbinger of things to come.
This is no pivot to China, but a disruption of the old normal. Duterte ends 2016 vowing to rebalance his nation's ties, improve the life of the average Filipino and make the Philippines -- a one-time economic and trade powerhouse -- great again.