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China’s Trade with the Five GMS Countres 1990-2011

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The 3rd Annual ICIRD Conference, Part II

Previously, I introduced ICIRD 2013, a Bangkok-based conference exploring issues of development, greater economic integration, and the idea of the regional commons. This blog post will delve more deeply into the background of the commons, an alternative way of organizing public goods that circumvents the hungry advance of neoliberal globalization. 

By way of illustrating, one of the most pressing current issues surrounds the Mekong River, the classic example of a regional – and transboundary – commons in Southeast Asia. Crossing six countries, laden with social and historical significance, and layered with overlapping claims and uses, millions depend on its shared resources, while growing hydropower development threatens large-scale devastation and destruction of riparian ecosystems. But forms of the commons can range in scale from municipal parks and shared community fishing sites along river banks, to oceans and digital commons on the far end.

The Commons as Social and Historical

Certainly in the context of greater regional integration augured by the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), the concept of the commons becomes an increasingly important, if imperiled, way of organizing assets and resources within communities. Introducing the Focus on the Global South Round Table I, Shalmali Guttal offered the following definition of the commons: it is a collection of assets that are actively managed for the good of the collective and should be accessible by everyone. They include not only natural and physical resources, but social, cultural, political (e.g., concepts like justice) and intellectual wealth as well.

But that’s not all that the concept offers: there can be no commons without a certain type of social relations based on sharing. It’s important to remember that the commons are entwined within the history of Southeast Asia, just as its growing commodification is embedded within the larger context of globalization. As Dr. Victor Savage (National University of Singapore) mentioned in an earlier panel, historically the Southeast Asian region has lacked traditional notions of private land ownership. Here, instead, usufruct rights guaranteed the rights of access for communities, and the commons functioned as safety net and social insurance.

But over time, as  Dr. Walden Bello (Member of the Philippines’ House of Representatives) reviewed, the transition to capitalism became inextricable from the plunder of non-Western societies, in a process that continues even now. He argued, for example, that the ADB and World Bank are central in enforcing ideologies of private property and codes to delegitimize communal traditions.

The tension between these divergent worldviews, one based upon the primacy of private property and the other upon the social relations upholding the commons, is ultimately not about choosing between a given set of choices, but rather about entire ideological frameworks brought together in one current, historically-informed confrontation.

Resistance and Alternatives

Pervasive throughout the ICIRD panels was the idea that everywhere the commons are being threatened by a neoliberal logic that seeks its enclosure and commercialization. The growing commodification of nature makes itself readily felt in the rise of issues like land grabbing, water privatization, and rampant hydropower development in the region, all of which were repeatedly raised in the course of the conference.

Neoliberalism, in Dr. Bello’s account, lost much of its legitimacy, due in part to the role of research organizations and scholars who documented its high human costs, as well as the internal crises of neoliberalism, erupting spectacularly in the Asian financial crisis of 1997 and the global crisis in 2008. He argues that while neoliberalism has been largely discredited, the lack of alternative paradigms means that it remains a source of default strategies for technocrats.

It may be partially true that business as usual continues for lack of other competing visions. But power also incentivizes its own perpetuation. And raising alternative possibilities is one way to counter the naturalization and legitimacy of dominant neoliberal globalization as it is taking place.

In seeking alternative forms of state-community relationships, it makes sense to step back from the lens of the nation-state. Yong Ming Li’s presentation (subtitled “Seeing like a chao baan/neak tonle,” in reference to James C. Scott’s seminal tome) offers one such narrative. By shifting down to the scale of the local, social-natural relations take on a new centrality that includes “a multiplicity of grounded perspectives and practices from the chao baan (villagers) of Chiang Khong, Thailand and the neak tonle (villagers living on the Tonle Sap lake)” (from ICIRD paper abstract). These social-natural relationships defy conceptualization based solely on market relations with nature.

The role of the research and academic communities seems clear – to keep giving voice to critical analyses of the changes taking place in the region and what’s at stake. To illustrate, the “Encouraging Green Growth in Thailand” forum was based on the appealing premise that “green economies will lead to higher resource efficiency, and investments in green innovation will benefit green pioneers with new markets, higher productivity, and human capital development” (from panel summary). Yet the forum ended in a robust debate about whether green growth (with its undeniable focus on growth) represents merely another reconfiguration of capitalism being pushed towards a new frontier.

Ultimately, as former Philippines Senator Dr. Orlando S. Mercado (who holds the distinction of being the first permanent representative of the country to ASEAN) told me after the Focus panel:

“We have to struggle to have our voices heard. But we should not only just be making our voices heard. We have to be able to move within the system to affect changes by taking advantage of various crises that erupt. To me, as a scholar interested in disaster mis-management, I feel that the cause of protecting the commons is served very well by making sure that each crisis, each disaster, each calamity, is taken advantage of to show that there must be people championing the cause of those who are adversely affected by its lack of management and the privatization that is ongoing as a consequence of economic development – all on the altar of creating a community that is ‘prosperous’.”

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The 3rd Annual ICIRD Conference, Part I

With the ASEAN Economic Community set to launch in 2015, it’s not surprising to see a heightened level of uncertainty, concern, and even apprehension about what this enhanced sphere of regional integration will mean for Southeast Asian nations.

Holding this backdrop firmly in mind, the 3rd Annual International Conference on International Relations and Development (ICIRD) recently commenced at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, on August 22-23, 2013. This year’s timely theme, “Beyond Borders: Building a Regional Commons in SE Asia,” showcased established voices, civil society organizations, and a new generation of scholars rising to the challenges of this historical moment. Over forty panels traversed diverse but interrelated topics from environmental justice and human rights, to sustainable economic growth.

While few would deny the problems of development in Asia as they have manifested so far (e.g., environmental degradation, growing income disparity, and resettlement), finding a consensus on a way forward proves much more difficult. As Dr. Siriporn Wajjwalku (Assoc. Prof., Thammasat University) noted with some urgency in the opening remarks, “2015 for us in the region is approaching… It’s extremely important for us to think about the commons and go beyond the borders that we are facing now.”

Dialogue and discussion are a good place to start. Thus Dr. Carl Middleton (Lect., Chulalongkorn University), a member of the ICIRD Executive Committee that organized the event, proclaimed the conference “a success in that there was plenty of sharing of knowledge, experience and ideas amongst the participants, and a wide range of examples of the commons and how they support peoples well-being and create public space were discussed.” Continue reading

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The logic of China’s economic strategies in Southeast Asia

In so many ways, China’s strategies for its involvement in Southeast Asia are much more pragmatic, more predictable, and considerably less nefarious than any other rising global power that previous laid sight on region.  Moreover, those strategies, born in the 1990s, make even more economic sense now than at the time of their inception due to the current needs of its development trajectory.

Energy consumption and the speed of urbanization in China are rising at ever-increasing rates.  To keep pace, the central government must secure energy resources and safe, low-cost agricultural goods. Southeast Asian states, in a complementary fashion, have robust food export markets, as in the case of Thailand or Malaysia, or as in Laos and Myanmar, have abundant endowments of energy resources.  Chinese state owned enterprises and private business interests seek to access and integrate into these markets and new infrastructure linkages such as highways and high-speed railways are indicators of deeper market integration abroad. Continue reading

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About East by Southeast

WRITE FOR US!  JOIN THE ExSE TEAM, contact us at eastbysoutheastmail@gmail.com

The East by Southeast team is made up of scholars, development professionals, logistics experts, environmentalists, green entrepreneurs, and policy makers. We all live and work in the region – some were born here and some are implants. It is in the framework of the wide variety of our opinions that we seek to promote a deeper discussion of regional challenges. Some of us write under pen names to allow discussion to flow freely.

In addition to blog posts, look forward to weekly new digests, book reviews, and data that will help better inform your understanding of this dynamic region.

 

WHY WE WRITE:

There are many good blogs about China and many from Southeast Asia, but it is surprising that there are few blogs looking at the connections between China and Southeast Asia given shared development challenges, centuries of historical and cultural interaction, and rising volumes of trade and people movement between China and Southeast Asia.

In the 1990s, nations and ethnic groups that were cut off from cross-border interaction during the Cold War began to reunite as peace spread throughout the region, and arguably, China’s rise has reinforced stability within the region to deliver deepened integration.  Fast forward twenty years, the region is home to some of the fastest growing economies in the world and rapidly changing urban spaces. It is also known for its abundance in natural resources and biodiversity, and development trajectories are converting those resources into cash crops and energy commodities for trade and consumption. On mainland Southeast Asia, a lack of policy coordination and communication between governments and stakeholders has already created a variety of trans-boundary issues like fisheries depletion in the Mekong watershed.  As a result, for the first time, the region faces threats to food security and a potentially gross mismanagement of its resource endowment.

In addition to the growing connections between China and Southeast Asia, the East by Southeast blog team will examine China’s footprint across its southern borders to provide answers to some of the big questions surrounding China’s global rise. We seek to understand the effect and return of China’s outpouring of aid and investment to its Southeast Asian neighbors and monitor changes in China’s approach to foreign policy as its interests spread across the region. We want to know how China’s neighbors are adapting to its rise and how effectively China’s soft power is spreading. There is much room for discussion and exploration of the gaps between China’s rhetoric on its peaceful rise in the region and its ability to continue expanding its resource base to feed the needs of a rapidly growing economy. Lastly, we are concerned with China’s adaptation and response to a new and concerted US foreign policy toward Southeast Asia.

From a different perspective, the blog team will look at how the space between China and its Southeast Asian neighbors is decreasing at a rapid rate as transportation infrastructure, advances in information transfer, and trade linkages reach across borders and states use what Yale scholar James C. Scott calls in his 2009 watershed work The Art of Not Being Governed, “distance demolishing technologies” to connect areas that were once the frontiers beyond all frontiers. For example, energy from hydropower plants is sent from Laos to the China’s east coast development zones, you can now drive a container truck from Kunming to Bangkok in less than a day on what was once previous non-navigable terrain, and in 2015 the ASEAN Economic Community promises to drop the barriers to the movement of labor and goods through the region. In addition to understanding the trajectory and obstacles of regional integration,
we want to explore how rapid and sudden improvements in connectivity reshape individual livelihoods, communities, and regional relationships.

There are so many stories to tell of the people who are shaping the region for better or for worse and of the people who are affected
by regional decision making. Narratives from the varied and violent histories of the Cold War, colonial, and pre-colonial eras can help demonstrate how history can inform the present challenges. In addition, the blog will expore many regional question marks such as the tenuous path to democratization in Myanmar (and Thailand and Cambodia), Kunming’s rise as the Bangkok of the north, a high-speed rail system through Laos, and the effects of salinization in the Mekong Delta.  Can cities and rural areas in the region learn how to provide each other with sustainable solutions to development challenges? Are there lessons to be taught as countries like Thailand, China, and Indonesia seek to escape the middle income trap?

The East by Southeast team is made up of scholars, development professionals, logistics experts, environmentalists, green entrepreneurs, and policy makers. We all live and work in the region – some were born here and some are implants. It is in the framework of the wide variety of our opinions that we seek to promote a deeper discussion of regional challenges. Some of us write under pen names to allow discussion to flow freely.

In addition to blog posts, look forward to weekly new digests, book reviews, and data that will help better inform your understanding of this dynamic region.

If you’d like to join the discussion, feel free to leave a comment after our posts, or if you’d like to contribute to the blog by becoming a team member, send us a message to eastbysoutheastmail@gmail.com.

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