The Political Economy of State Transformation and Transnational Governance in Asia

Dr Lee Jones
Queen Mary, University of London


We seek funding to launch a pilot research network and hold a collaborative workshop on the political economy of state transformation and emerging transnational governance in Asia. We identify prima facie evidence of state transformation – the fragmentation, decentralisation and uneven internationalisation of state apparatuses – and the networking of state, non-state and hybrid actors to form transboundary governance regimes across this dynamic and important region. This is driven by economic globalisation and in turn reshapes how globalisation is governed and proceeds. We seek to overturn the stereotypical view in International Relations (IR) of Asian states as monolithic, ‘Westphalian’ entities by studying these phenomena comparatively.

The funding will be used primarily to bring together scholars working on these issues across sub-regions and disciplines, who ordinarily do not/ cannot interact. Participants’ expertise spans Central, Southeast and East Asia and disciplines including Politics and IR, Political Economy, Anthropology, Geography, Ethnology and Comparative Sociology. This cross-disciplinary engagement is necessary to correct the excessive statism of mainstream IR theory. Our team is gender-balanced and includes scholars at all career stages.

By using a common set of research questions and drawing on our different disciplinary backgrounds to develop a shared, novel theoretical framework, we seek to understand the politico-economic drivers and outcomes of state transformation and transnational governance. This will pioneer a new research agenda, and generate knowledge useful to policymakers, journalists, businesses, civil society and political activist groups, and ordinary citizens interested in how power is institutionalised and organised, and to whose benefit. The outputs will be a special issue in a leading journal, and hopefully the formation of a longer-term research network on this topic.

The Research Idea

Our interest in the economy is how economic globalisation is transforming states and international governance in Asia, which in turn reshapes economic relations. Economic globalisation, coupled with local socio-political conflict, is changing Asian states. Previously coherent, territorially-bounded and sovereignty-jealous, they are now increasingly fragmented, decentralised and unevenly internationalised. Different state apparatuses are now increasingly networking across borders, creating new regional governance arrangements. These often seek to manage growing transboundary challenges caused by globalisation: flows of trade, investment, goods and people; and accompanying non-traditional security challenges like terrorism, piracy, transnational crime and pandemics.

Examples include:
• Counter-terrorism intelligence sharing through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization;
• The Mekong Basin Disease Surveillance Network of Chinese and Southeast Asian national and subnational medical agencies;
• The efforts of China’s Yunnan province to forge economic integration and transnational infrastructural connections (the Greater Mekong Subregion) and its regional leadership on anti-piracy, counter-narcotics and anti-trafficking.
• The outsourcing of governance functions to aid donors in Central Asia;
• Paradiplomacy by India’s federal states;
• The emergence of the Asia Pacific Group, a regional offshoot of the Financial Action Task Force, as pan-regional regulator of money laundering and terrorist financing;
• The Chiang Mai Multilateralisation Initiative, which networks central bank regulators across East Asia;
• Pan-regional groupings in Northeast Asia (e.g. the Greater Tumen Initiative, the Association of Northeast Asian Regional Governments) designed to foster economic deregulation and growth.

We propose the first comparative study of the political economy of these transformations across Central, Southeast and East Asia.


Mainstream IR literature insists that Asian states are highly ‘Westphalian’: jealous of their sovereignty, resistant to complex cross-border cooperation on economic or security matters, and offering nothing new to international politics/ political economy beyond conventional power-balancing and power struggles over multilateral institutions like the World Trade Organization (Odgaard 2006; Flemes 2013; Gray and Murphy 2013). This depicts Asia as immune to economic and political transformations apparent in the West: the rise of regulatory states; decentralisation; the dispersal of foreign-policy-making and implementation; and the emergence of transnational, multilevel governance (Cerny 2010).
This depiction is inaccurate. Asia has witnessed the emergence of regulatory states (Dubash and Morgan 2013) and extensive decentralisation (World Bank 2007). State sovereignty is no longer absolute; it has become ‘graduated’ as Asian economies are integrated into global and offshore networks (Appadurai 1998; Ong 2000). Pioneering studies show how these changes are fostering:
• ‘Regulatory regionalism’ (Hameiri and Jayasuriya 2011)
• ‘Transnational spaces’ (Chen 2005)
• Multilevel security governance networks in Southeast Asia (Hameiri and Jones 2015)
• Transboundary governance initiatives emerging from China (Hameiri and Jones 2016); and
• Transnationalised ‘offshore’ economies in Central Asia (Heathershaw and Cooley 2015).
So far, research is preliminary and remains ‘siloed’ into (a) disciplines (notably IR/ International Political Economy/ Geography/ Anthropology); and (b) different regions, such that comparable findings in Central, Southeast and East Asia are simply not being brought together. We want to remedy this by bringing together Asia experts to develop common theories and concepts and unite empirical insights.

The Focus

Today, Asia is the world’s most dynamic economic region and the site of the world’s most important ‘emerging’ economies and ‘rising’ powers, notably China, India and (if Asia is broadly defined) Russia. Whether Asia’s rise offers nothing but a return to Westphalian sovereignty and power-balancing is clearly not a merely academic question; it also has crucial ‘real-life’ implications. Policymakers, journalists, companies and the wider public need to understand how economic globalisation is remaking Asia and how Asian states are responding, in turn remaking economic globalisation.
For example, if Asia’s rising powers are simply ‘Westphalian’ states then the Western response would seem to be limited to containment and deterrence. If, as we maintain, Asian states are – like Western ones – increasingly transnationally networked into multilevel regimes, the prospects for complex cooperation and shared approaches expand enormously. Yet, Western diplomats will also need to change their practices to engage with a far wider range of actors, reflecting the fragmentation and dispersal of foreign and security policymaking. Similarly, outside business interests need to understand realities on the ground: as ‘borders bend’ (Chen 2005), what are the real governance arrangements affecting investment, production and trade in this crucial region?
Meanwhile, ordinary Asian citizens need to understand how governance is being transformed around them, and how this affects the distribution of economic and political power. Past research suggests that state transformation often shifts power and decision-making to forums and into the hands of officials not subject to popular accountability. It therefore risks entrenching authoritarianism.

Theoretical Novelty

Our main aim is to decisively refute the mainstream IR understanding of Asian states as sovereignty-bound, Westphalian monoliths, and introduce a more accurate conceptualisation of Asian statehood and, crucially, its relationship to global and local economic processes. Important exceptions notwithstanding, most IR scholars are ‘methodologically nationalist’ (Wimmer and Glick Schiller 2002), assuming that states are the natural ‘units’ of analysis and are ‘containers’ of social, political and economic relations – despite longstanding criticism of this misleading ‘territorial trap’ (Agnew 1994).
By combining theoretical and empirical insights from similar processes throughout Asia, we want to develop an alternative theoretical framework for understanding how economic globalisation is transforming Asian states and generating opportunities and pressures for state, non-state and hybrid agencies to network across state borders, creating new forms of transnational governance. This may involve using concepts developed in:
• political economy to understand the impact of economic transnationalisation on statehood and to analyse the socio-political conflicts driving the aforementioned changes (Breslin 2013; Rodan et al. 2006);
• state theory and political science to analyse the shift from government to governance, e.g., network governance, multilevel governance, assemblages (Abrahamsen and Williams 2011);
• political geography on sovereignty and scale, e.g. the rescaling of state apparatuses (Brenner 2004), the improvisatory state (Jeffrey 2012), new spaces and scales of governance (Hameiri and Jones 2015);
• sociology and anthropology on changing modes of sovereignty and state-society relations, e.g. bricolage, ‘graduated’ sovereignty (Ong 2000), ‘neoliberal frontiers’ (Chalfin 2010), the performative state (Beyer et al 2014).


We will invite political economists specialising in particular Asian states/ regions to address a common set of questions:
• How is globalisation/ economic transnationalisation in your area of expertise affecting: a) the composition of and dynamic conflicts among socio-political forces and especially dominant forces’ strategies of rule; the nature of statehood, especially the fragmentation, decentralisation and internationalisation of state apparatuses?
• How far are these changes leading to the formation of novel economic or security governance arrangements in your area of expertise, and what is the political economy of these arrangements? What issues get governed and what issues are neglected? What do the new arrangements look like? How do their structures admit some forces and agendas and exclude others? How effective are these arrangements in tackling the problems they purport to address? Is the creation and/or operation of such structures contested or resisted? Who benefits from them, and who loses?
• What is the best way to theorise and explain these empirical observations, within the broad tradition of critical political economy, but drawing widely on useful concepts and theories from other disciplines? How can we develop a framework capable of explaining these developments across the widest range of cases possible?
• What are the implications of our empirical and theoretical insights beyond the academy, e.g. for practitioners, journalists, the private sector, civil society and political actors and the wider public?

Work Plan

• Beginning month 1: PI finalises project team; PI defines broad theoretical parameters of research (critical political economy); team agrees common research questions;
• Months 1-7: primary and secondary case-study research by participants on their areas of expertise.
• Month 8: PI convenes workshop in London for participants to present and share findings. PI reviews papers in advance to develop the outlines of a common theoretical framework, to be jointly developed and agreed at the workshop.
• Month 9: PI writes up the theoretical framework and distributes it to project participants.
• Months 9-12: participants conduct further case-study research in line with the theoretical framework and revise their papers for publication.
• End month 12: collection is submitted for publication.
The main output will be a special issue of a leading international journal such as New Political Economy, Third World Quarterly, or the Journal of Contemporary Asia. Given the novelty of the topic, this would be a landmark collection that could help spur a new research agenda in Asian studies.


A further outcome of this project would be the establishment of a long-term research network to further pursue this agenda beyond this initial pilot project. Whether this is possible will partly depend on whether our initial concept – that there is a great deal of state transformation and transnational networking occurring in Asia to be uncovered and compared – is borne out. We would also want to identify the additional research questions driving this network at the workshop itself since, in our experience, meaningful collaboration can only emerge organically, from research that scholars genuinely wish to undertake. Were there to be scope and enthusiasm for further collaboration we would expect the network to expand beyond its initial parameters and become the basis for international collaborative grant bids to foster further research.