New studies of Chinese investment in the Mekong

As more substantial research is being done on the impact Chinese investment in northern mainland Southeast Asia (I think there are now half a dozen researchers working in northern Laos alone!), so the quality of analysis improves. I recently read several impressive pieces, including two articles by Danielle Tan, based on her dissertation research and published by IRASEC, and one by Kevin Woods on New Mandala. (Tan’s master’s thesis, on the Chinese in Cambodia, was published as a MqVU working paper.) A third new paper, by Mike Dwyer on northern Laos, emphasises the agency, and power gains, of local village elites in and from rubber planting, and criticizes views that interpret this process as erosion of sovereignty.

Tan and Woods agree with Dwyer that Chinese investment does not bring about a territoiral expansion of Chinese state sovereignty, but unlike him, they argue that it in fact reinforces the expansion of lowland (Lao/Burmese) state control. The thrust of the two papers is similar, but Tan elaborates the argument in much more detail. Chinese businessmen, she argues, have very nearly regained the status of tax farmers that they possessed under colonial rule. They provide farmers with seedlings (mostly of rubber palm, but also other cash crops), fertilizer, and access to markets they collect produce and take care of its passage through the Lao-Chinese border, including negotiating payment with customs officials. “By producing rent and new opportunities of redistribution among influential personalities, they contribute to the viability of the state. This alliance of networks thus constitutes a strategy [or the Lao state] to impede the emergence of a counter-elite” in the form of a native moneyed class (p. 16), the same function “middlemen minorities” played under colonialism or Chinese in Indonesia under Soeharto. Thus, Chinese investment and migration helps to render the highlands “legible,” governable and profitable for the lowland state while minimising the risk of new regional centres of power emerging.

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4 Responses to New studies of Chinese investment in the Mekong

  1. Mike Dwyer says:

    Thank you for mentioning my recent New Mandala piece. I want to clarify a few points, though, as I think you may have misread my work slightly. You wrote that “Tan and Woods agree with Dwyer that Chinese investment does not bring about a territoiral expansion of Chinese state sovereignty, but unlike him, they argue that it in fact reinforces the expansion of lowland (Lao/Burmese) state control.” Actually this latter claim is pretty much my argument, too. The following is the thesis paragraph from my New Mandala piece:

    “The picture that emerges is hardly one in which Beijing is displacing Vientiane as the seat of sovereignty in the Lao hinterland. On the contrary, [this piece describes] a case of what I suspect may be a larger phenomenon: local governments’ use of Chinese investment projects to improve their own effective sovereignty – in this case, to help anchor various communities in place along what I will describe as a sort of internal frontier. This was certainly linked to China’s economic expansion into Laos, and it certainly seemed poised to provide what economic geographers call a spatial fix for China’s land problem. But to gloss it as an expansion of Chinese sovereignty is to miss the point entirely.”

    Also, your earlier summary of my piece – that it “emphasises the agency, and power gains, of local village elites in and from rubber planting, and criticizes views that interpret this process as erosion of sovereignty” – is a bit off as well. I don’t mention village elites (my focus is on local government, as summarized above); if I say something that implies village elites, I’d appreciate hearing about it.

    And perhaps most relevant to you, the other piece of the above (“…criticizes views that interpret this process as erosion of sovereignty”) is true, but it needs to be read narrowly: “this process” refers to Chinese rubber projects, not Chinese investment more broadly. This obviously resonates with your and Chris Lyttleton’s work on extraterritoriality, which I have enjoyed a great deal. I think it nails what’s going on in the casino SEZs and many enclave resource projects as well (e.g., the dam you discuss). I also think it captures well the slippage between property and sovereignty that a lot of people (both locals and foreign residents) see in the land concession process, both in SEZs and resource enclaves and in other concession-type spaces as well. The trick is figuring out the concrete dimensions of those concession-type spaces that don’t quite manifest the spatiality of the SEZ or the enclave. My concern in the New Mandala piece was with writers – exemplified by the Asia Times Online’s Southeast Asia editor – who make the leap from property to sovereignty (and thus to extraterritoriality) a bit too quickly – in this case, without the sorts of concrete data that you and Lyttleton mobilize, and without much historical grounding either.

    All of which is to say that if you took my New Mandala piece as a critique of your work, I hope you will reconsider, and will see it not as a criticism of but as a critical engagement with. I hope you agree that this is a distinction worth making.

  2. Thank you for the extensive response. I may have conflated local authorities with village elites in summarizing your post.

    As for the critique of our article, Tan’s view (shared by others) that Chinese investment may be strengthening the sovereignty of the lowland state more than anything else may be right. In any case we did not mean to argue that it is China whose sovereignty is strengthening over these areas at the expense of the local state; but rather that some partial, fuzzy or limited forms of sovereignty may be emerging.

    • dwyer says:

      This makes sense as well. I think that a key issue to keep an eye on, however, is the spatial unevenness: the northern borderlands are in this sense fairly heterogeneous. You and Lyttleton have me convinced about the proliferation of shared sovereignty in the enclave areas you describe. (Also see Antonella Diana’s work about the Lao-China borderlands outside the special economic zones.) In the upland interior areas I was studying, things seem to be working quite differently, and this is the point: not to identify a single “net” sovereignty effect of Chinese investment in northern Laos but to take stock of the different territorial regimes operating next to — and increasingly in conversation with — one another.

  3. [...] by the junta that it will begin “necessary procedures” at the project location. As Kevin Woods has argued, Chinese investments in northern Burma serve to strengthen the military state, which has [...]

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