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THE IMPACT OF GLOBALIZATION UPON PROSPECTS FOR PEACE AND CO-OPERATION: EVIDENCE FROM SOUTHEAST ASIA John Walsh D.Phil., MUI Research Fellow, Curtin Business School, Curtin University of Technology,Perth, Australia.

INTRODUCTION: A crucial issue related to the continued impact of globalisation is that of whether it improves or worsens the prospects for cross-border peace and co-operation. This issue is explored within the specific context of the Southeast Asian region. A role is identified for states to attempt to avoid the problems of inequitable distribution of the benefits of development and of the marginalisation of people.

“PRINCE. Why, thou globe of sinful continents, what a life dost thou lead! FALSTAFF. A better than thou. I am a gentleman: thou art a drawer.” Shakespeare, William, The Second Part of King Henry IV, Act II, Scene IV.

Globalisation has been widely described as being a powerful and even inevitable process that will bring unprecedented change upon the world and upon the societies of the world. The recent demonstrations in Seattle concerning setting a governmental agenda for the World Trade Organisation helps to illustrate the equivocation with which many people greet this notion. It is clear that there is discontent from a variety of sources about the possible impact on employment, upon labour conditions in countries to which manufacturing operations have been relocated and upon the apparently unfettered power of international capital charging around the world without regard for morality or regulation.

Yet globalisation is a multidimensional construct which affects the social, political and cultural spheres of countries just as much as the economic, just as the effect of economic crises also affects society more generally. By examining one particular region of the world, a closer understanding of the nature and impact of globalisation is enabled and, hence, the impact upon society more generally. The question that may then be considered, therefore, is whether globalisation is likely to increase or decrease the prospects for peace and co-operation in the region.

In this paper, the mainland Southeast Asian region refers to Thailand, Lao PDR, Vietnam, Cambodia, (Union of) Myanmar (formerly Burma) and the Yunnan Province of the People’s Republic of China.

On Globalisation

Globalisation has been taken to refer to a process whereby all regions of the world, under the increasing influence of international capitalism and the driving force of technology, seem set to converge upon a universally recognised model of highest living standards, probably based on somewhere like northern California: "No-one is exempt and nothing can stop the process. Everywhere everything gets more and more like everything else as the world's preference structure is relentlessly homogenised." (Levitt, 1983). Yet this is to provide too narrow an understanding of a multidimensional and complex series of phenomena. Jessop provides one description of this complexity: “Structurally, globalisation would exist in so far as co-variation of relevant activities becomes more global in extent and / or the speed of that covariation on a global scale increases. Thus defined, global interdependence typically results from processes on various spatial scales, operates differently in each functional subsystem, involves complex and tangled causal hierarchies rather than a simple, unilinear, bottom-up or top-down movement and often displays an eccentric ‘nesting’ or interpenetration of different scales of social organisation (Jessop, 1999).”

It is clear, therefore, that country-specific conditions will be of considerable importance in structuring and determining both the causes and the effects of such interdependence. The prevalence of cross-border links in the Southeast Asian region is of relevance here: for example, many ethnic groups straddle the political boundaries of mainland Southeast Asia and many linguistic and economic systems exist without reference to such boundaries. In other cases, it is possible to locate instruments of change within specific spatial and temporal boundaries: for example, the dispersal of many Laotian Hmong people resulted directly from actions taken during the USA-led war in Vietnam; similarly, capture of power by the Pathet Lao led to the migration of many of the Lao bourgeoisie and intelligentsia, among others. The processes of globalisation are driven by the forces of technology and its application, the apparently increasing power of international capital movements and the concomitant reduction in economic sovereignty by nation states, especially those lesser-developed states, together with external influences upon domestic economies arising from activities such as tourism and the provision of aid. Separating the particular implications of each such driving force becomes an increasingly intricate and, in some ways, meaningless activity. This is because all forces lead to the creation, in a poor economy such as that of the Lao PDR, of a skein of physical, human and commercial infrastructure which is necessary for such activities to be undertaken. For aid to be dispersed and administered effectively, overseas agencies need telecommunications, accommodation and support staff of a sufficiently high level: so too does the international business community, especially that part of the community from the west which is unable to mobilise resources such as access to networks which are available to regional neighbours (Dicken and Yeung, 1999).

The Southeast Asian Context

Although it is not an uncontested view (e.g. Wijeyewardene, 1992), there is a widespread opinion of the Southeast Asian region that it is an area in which political boundaries are of limited importance (Leach, 1960). This arises from historical factors and the comparatively small size of the population within the region – a limitation that prevented state rulers from being able to exercise their will in regions remote from the core. To this might be added the difficulties attendant upon actually mapping the region, given its extensive forests and difficult terrain – indeed, it has been estimated that even today only 58 km of the total of 2,401 km length of the Thai-Myanmar border has been accurately demarcated (Manibhandu et al., 1998).. It is often argued that it was the arrival of colonising European powers that brought about the artificial enforcement of such borders. The inability of state leaders to be able to enforce their will over peoples at a distance is mirrored by the great variety and diversity of ethnic minority people in the region. Many such groups have migrated, generally further south, in response to adverse conditions; others have been and are being moved in response to government policies which are variable in terms of popularity in international circles. The lack of physical infrastructure, combined with the opacity of many government agencies, means this can often be a contested issue: for example, the Lao PDR government claims that the resettlement of upland Lao (Lao soung) to lowland locations is not so much to prevent such traditional activities as slash and burn agriculture and the cultivation of opium as to reunite families and communities that have become fragmented over time (e.g. Government of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, 1997, p.23).

Cross-border movement and trade has been evident in the region under consideration for many hundreds of years. Not only have various ethnic groups migrated throughout the region, mostly moving south from Yunnan province but, also, trading activities have linked together core state areas. That such movements are now known as much for the trafficking of drugs and of armed struggle is at least as much a result of western intervention than of historical patterns of activity (Renard, 1997). Historical patterns and systems, perverted or manipulated by external influences, can lead to destabilisation and threats to security, both domestically and across borders. As a perhaps less extreme example, the conditionality imposed upon Thailand for loans by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have contributed, through increasing unemployment and reducing the prospects for many in the future labour market, to the increase of the drug trade and of the forcible repatriation of migrant workers. Problems of Peace and Security.

Ideological difference, historical enmity and political expediency together make the Southeast Asian region an area where conflict between states a genuine possibility – albeit more likely as an informal rather than formal conflict. Particular examples of ideological differences include the Thai government’s struggle against genuine and presumed communism, fears over the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia and the continued suppression of irredentist ethnic minorities in Myanmar. Historical enmity is evident in the continued unease between Thailand and Myanmar, in which the memory of the burning of Ayutthaya is regularly invoked and the issue of political expediency is clear from the responses to the flow of drugs from Myanmar to Thailand and from the central Chinese government’s policy towards supposed dissidents such as ethnic minorities.

Although divisive forces certainly exist, there are many counter-balancing governmental, semi-governmental and non-governmental forces which are active in trying to bring together cross-border interests in the interest of economic development, albeit economic development measured in terms of income agglomeration. Projects surrounding the Greater Mekong River Area are evident here. Some measure of success has been achieved in the creation of hydroelectric dams and power schemes. Yet an instructive comparison is that of the Tumen River Economic Development Area, in which a brief window of conciliation by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) and China provided sustenance for the belief that South Korean and Japanese money could bring into being a cross-border economic zone that would unite all interests, bringing into play also the Russian Far East and even Mongolia, thus heralding both economic development and international co-operation. However, the project failed as a result of a lack of physical infrastructure, political intransigence and the dissonance between public sector cycles and private sector cycles. It is this inability to co-ordinate public and private sector cycles caused the Singaporean government to abandon its support for offshore investment programmes, particularly in mainland China, which was seen as such a vital part of the continued growth of the city state.

In addition to the difficulties inherent in managing the international environment on a unilateral basis, a variety of other sources of potential conflict exist within the region: •Contested borders: borders are inadequately mapped and the struggle for the right to command resources is likely to continue in the foreseeable future. International tension is possible as a result of the struggle to own the Spratly Islands; smaller scale outbreaks are possible and in some cases routine along the Thai-Myanmar border and along the Cambodian borders regions. Tensions are exacerbated when national sovereignty is threatened by such acts as piracy and smuggling. Access to water resources is a long-term issue that will become increasingly problematic;

•Threat of military action: although the current military regime of Myanmar has been pursuing the ostensible policy of peace-making with ethnic minority groups, the yet unfulfilled demands for autonomy and independence in the country – and more widely as in Indonesia – suggest that the outbreak of military activity will remain a threat. It is also possible that renewed instability in Cambodia could lead to a perceived need for foreign intervention;

•Spread of contamination: one of the more important considerations that historical state elites have faced when moderating cross-border trade is the spread of unwelcome ideas and other forms of contagion. The same situation exists with respect to the spread of HIV /AIDS in the Lao PDR (and increasingly throughout China), to which the movements of lorry drivers make a significant contribution, together with the increasing prevalence of drug use and prostitution in urban areas and, as some see it, the concomitant displacement of Laotian cultural artifacts by Thai replacements.. Having provided a context for the question, therefore, it is now possible to seek to answer it.

Implications of Globalisation for Peace and Co-Operation Clearly, there is not a simple answer to the question of whether the impact of the processes of globalisation will be positive or negative in terms of prospects for peace and co-operation. There will instead be both positive and negative aspects. The positive aspects include the following:

•The standard of living of many people will increase to some extent. This does not mean necessarily simply the opportunity to purchase more consumer goods and marketed brands; instead it offers better basic healthcare and education for many of the region’s poorest people as state governments co-operate with international partners and provide greater internal access; •Governmental, Non-Governmental and private organisations will be more able to establish networks of connections and activities within the region and these should help in providing stabilising influences and modes of communication between states when top-level communication can be fraught;

•The greater provision of information and communication helps to empower people to change their own lives and those of their families for the better.

Conversely, the negative aspects include the following:

•There is reason to believe that benefits from improvements in the standard of living are inequitably distributed and that specific groups are omitted from such a distribution. This leads to the marginalisation of people and increases in social tension;

•In the poorer countries, notably Lao PDR but also Cambodia and Myanmar when those states enter more fully into the international commercial environment, society will undergo fragmentation since different regions will enjoy different rates of growth. It is clear already, for example, that the opening of the Friendship Bridge linking Vientiane with the Thai border town of Nong Khai has considerably changed the level and nature of economic activities within the Lao capital but that the benefits of this are primarily flowing to a comparatively small group of merchants;

•Powerful countries tend to dominate less powerful countries, both through gaining economic sovereignty over the state and also through a form of cultural hegemony, whether intended or not. Some state governments will not welcome the replacement of local celebrities by Thai pop stars and television actors, for example, especially when this weakens their ability to influence popular opinion.

To ensure that the positive aspects outweigh the negative, there is a need for governments to influence:

•The equitable distribution of resources and of the benefits of social and economic development;

•Creation of a regional dialogue to promote a discourse providing genuine alternatives to the prevailing macroeconomic orthodoxy of the IMF;

•The development of labour markets to help the local economy participate in increasingly higher value-adding activities rather than acting just as commodity labour;

•The promotion of a sense of national culture and identity which is inclusive rather than exclusive and which implies both a measure of self-confidence and a willingness to adapt to changing conditions.

These are far-ranging and possibly difficult policies for governments to enact and yet attention to them is vital. To allow market forces to create a fragmented and disempowered economy would be an abandonment of responsibility.


Development challenges peace, whether it is economic, social or political development. However, few people would champion absolute peace over any development, if only because development tends to lead to technological and societal advances that improve longevity and health levels such that many members of society have a better chance of expressing themselves and of providing a better standard of living for their children. While this has always been the case, it has been increasingly true in recent years in which the pace of change of technology has accelerated so greatly. This has caused many people to be incapable of dealing with such rapid change – even if they have access to the technology and are empowered to employ it. The processes of globalisation can intensify this trend and it is important for states to take steps to try to minimise the dangers of marginalisation of people within the overall economy. If not, then fragmentation might lead to confrontation and to threats to peace and security.


Dicken, Peter and Henry Wai-Chung Yeung, “Investing in the Future: East and Southeast Asian Firms in the Global Economy,” in Kris Olds, Peter Dicken, Philip F. Kelly, Lily Kong and Henry Wai-Chung Yeung, eds., Globalisation and the Asia-Pacific: Contested Territories (London: Routledge, 1999), pp.19-38. Government of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Socio-Economic Development and Investment Requirements, 1997-2000, Government Report for the Sixth Round Table Meeting (Geneva, June 19-20th, 1997). Jessop, Bob, “Reflections on Globalisation and Its (Il)logic(s),” in Olds et al., eds (1999), op.cit., pp.107-28. Leach, Edmund, “The Frontiers of Burma,” Comparative Studies in Society and History (1960), pp.49-68. Levitt, Theodore, "The Globalisation of Markets," Harvard Business Review, Vol.61, No.3 (May-June, 1983), pp.92-102. Manibhandu, Anuraj, Nussara Sawatsawang and Bhanravee Tansubhapol, “Miles Apart but Still Talking,” The Bangkok Post (August 24th, 1998), electronically retrieved from Renard, Ron, “The Making of a Problem: Narcotics in Mainland Southeast Asia,” in Don McCaskill and Ken Kampe, editors, Development or Domestication? Indigenous Peoples of Southeast Asia (Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 1997), pp.307-28. Wijeyewardene, Gehan, “Rethinking the ‘Frontiers of Burma,’” Thai-Yunnan Project Newsletter, No.19 (December, 1992), pp.2-6.

Editors’s Note: John Walsh is MUI Research Fellow at Curtin Business School, Curtin University of Technology. He gained his doctorate at the University of Oxford in the area of international market entry strategy. His current research interests include the impact of globalisation on the Southeast Asian region, economic and social development within the region and issues relating to poststructuralism, complexity and chaos within the sphere of management and business studies.

John Walsh D.Phil.,,MUI Research Fellow, Curtin Business School, Ninth Floor, Building 402, Curtin University of Technology, PO Box U1987, Perth WA 6845, Australia. Tel: +61-8-9266-2860,Fax: +61-8-9266-2378 Email:

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